I remember crying when Carrie Strug landed her vault on a sprained ankle and drooling with my college roommates over the impossible musculature of Russia's Alexi Nemov. I am not a fanatic, but I have always been a fan of gymnastics, and when the Olympics roll around every four years, I am glued to NBC.
This year crowned a new American champion, 16-year-old powerhouse Carly Patterson. Watching her battle such giants as the glowering and gaunt Svetlana Khorkina and the delicately precise Xhang Nan, I was impressed not only by her huge abilities, but also by the genuine grin that flashed with each nailed routine. She is not the most graceful or inventive champion I have ever seen, but she is totally focused, totally solid and one of the most explosive tumblers in the history of the sport.
After seeing her face plastered all over the media, it was a bit strange to watch her butter a roll right next to me. Completely by accident, I had the opportunity to lunch with the world champion after an exhibition with Boise State and the Idaho Center. There she was, a petite brunette with big eyes, a sense of humor and, surprisingly, an appetite. I was expecting someone bubbly, straightlaced and into plain lettuce with a lemon wedge, but Patterson was every bit an American teenager as she gushed about meeting stars at the Video Music Awards while munching on fries and a loaded burger dripping with cheese.
I asked her the standard questions about elite status, the physical strain, the pressure to overwork and chemically enhance and so on. And though Patterson answered all questions with poise and dry wit, it was way more fun and telling to talk about her dreams of becoming a pop singer on par with the Simpson sisters and Hilary Duff. We swapped nostalgic Barbie stories and discussed the finer points of teen idol dye jobs, and the more I heard, the more I liked the fact that she had found a way to balance being a real person and stepping up to represent a sport and a country on the global level. She was inexplicably subdued about her own greatness.
"It's weird sometimes, thinking about how big this is, but it's cool that people look up to me," she said, "and I have the best coaches in the world." She credited her gymnastics career with teaching her the life skills of hard work and dedication and didn't even flinch when I nabbed a fry from her plate (I should have had it bronzed). Even though she has never even heard of Google let alone Googled herself to see the hundreds of shrine-like tributes to her every detail, she is determined to keep accepting e-mail from her official Web site and to answer every single one. "It might take me a while," she laughed. I have no doubt that if I write her a note about our meeting, she will get back to me--even it takes ten years. :
T.J. Maxx Team USA Gymnastics Tour, November 4, 7 p.m., $19-$75, Idaho Center Arena, 16200 Can-Ada Rd., Nampa, Tickets at 442-3232 or www.ictickets.com.