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Robin Huebner, Published July 30 2012

Robin Huebner Reports: Former US champion gymnast recounts coming so close to her Olympic dream

FARGO - A friend on Facebook wondered why she only enjoyed watching gymnastics on TV during the Olympics.

One answer: There’s not much television coverage of it during non-Olympic years.

The best answer: You don’t have to be a die-hard to be drawn to the athleticism and artistry of Olympics gymnastics, with its pressure-cooker atmosphere that comes along once every four years.

A little dose of drama doesn’t hurt, either, and the first day of women’s gymnastics on Sunday in London provided just that.

Seventeen-year-old American Jordyn Wieber took fourth in the all-around qualifications, which by most accounts should have vaulted her into Thursday’s all-around finals.

But because of a rule allowing only two gymnasts per country to advance to the finals, the reigning national and world champion won’t be competing for all-around gold.

Two other Americans, 18-year-old Aly Raisman and 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, who squeaked in just ahead of Wieber, will get that chance. It’s a tough pill to swallow for both Wieber and Raisman, who are said to be the best of friends and roommates in London.

The controversy has those in and out of the gymnastics world buzzing.

“It’s a lot to carry on the shoulders of a teenager,” says Heidi Tillman, head coach and competitive director at American Gold Gymnastics in Fargo. Gymnasts at American Gold, who are training as many as five hours a day this summer to prepare for fall competition, spoke of the missed opportunity.

Nine-year-old Vanessa Palmer put it in the simplest of terms. “I’m sad for Jordyn because she doesn’t get to have her two friends with her,” she says.

Thirteen-year-old Reedyn Hansen had this perspective: “I’m sad for Jordyn, but I was actually rooting for Aly, because she reminds me of myself a little bit.”

I’ve had a little taste of the pressure and disappointment faced by these athletes. As an up and coming gymnast out of Dickinson, my Olympic dream began after watching the Soviet Union’s Olga Korbut thrill the Munich crowds in 1972. Through hard work and motivation, I earned a berth on the U.S. national team in 1975, allowing me to represent the U.S. at meets overseas, including in Japan, the Soviet Union and Germany.

Then, as a 14-year-old, I won the U.S. championships in the spring of 1976, earning a trip to the Olympic trials a few weeks later with a good shot at making the team that would travel to Montreal for the 1976 Olympics.

But it was not meant to be. Because of opening-day jitters on the balance beam at the trials, and a judges’ mentality that seemed to favor more seasoned competitors, the Olympic dream escaped me. To date, it’s still probably the biggest personal disappointment of my life.

It seemed back then it was enough to simply have the pressure of doing well in the competitive arena. Today, Olympic athletes also deal with the pressure of constant attention from both traditional and social media, and the financial incentives that come with the possibility of endorsements.

I chatted over Facebook with 1988 Olympic gymnast and University of Utah star Melissa Marlowe, who’s in London working as an analyst for the 3-D coverage of men’s and women’s gymnastics. While some Olympic gymnasts choose to parlay their experience into a scholarship at a top NCAA program, as she did, Marlowe says the thought of post-Olympic endorsements is probably on most gymnasts’ minds.

“The draw of maybe making millions is certainly there, and I think if a gymnast is a gold medal contender she can’t help but think about that,” Marlowe says.

For now, though, the athletes have the next round of competition to focus on. For the women, it’s the team final that airs in prime time tonight. After the U.S. men’s team placed fifth and out of the medals on Monday, all eyes will be on the women to come through with a medal – preferably gold. The first and only time the U.S. women gymnasts won team gold in the Olympics was in 1996 in Atlanta.

As for the Jordyn Wieber saga, Marlowe says, “We can’t win without her, and she could still leave the Olympic Games as a gold medalist. If she comes through in team finals, she will emerge a hero.”

And I’ll be in front of my TV or computer, soaking in every minute of it.

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