Harris' injury gives Heenan shot at Olympics

Updated: June 24, 2004, 9:41 PM ET
Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Katie Heenan was in shock when she left the national championships earlier this month, her career as an elite gymnast seemingly over.

A double bronze medalist at the 2001 world championships, she finished 14th at nationals, missing the cut for the Olympic trials by two spots.

"It wasn't so much disappointment as just shock that it was all over," she said. "It was overwhelming to think, 'OK, now what do I do?' "

She could, as an alternate for trials, keep training on the chance that someone would withdraw. Or she could stop, and move on with her life.

That latter option was mighty tempting at first. Then she had a talk with her father, John, a former gymnast himself.

"When you think about how much time she's put into this sport, chasing her dreams for the last 10 years, 12 years, that, multiplied out, equaled some 15,000 hours of practice," John Heenan said. "That's a lot of time she's put into it. At that time, there were only about two weeks left before trials.

"I said, 'When you look at it, two weeks more is less than 100 hours to go. That compared to the 15,000 hours you've already put into it is only 0.01 percent. Why not? Why not keep training?' "

Those words struck a chord with Heenan. Then she got phone calls from her coach, Tatiana Periskaia, and the coach at Georgia, where Heenan has a scholarship waiting for her. Both urged her to keep training, telling her she had worked too hard to give up now.

"Why give up when you still have a chance?" Heenan said. "So I decided to keep training."

Fate has a way of rewarding those who persevere.

Last Friday, Heenan got a phone call telling her that Nicole Harris pulled out of the Olympic trials because of a broken bone in her ankle. The open spot was Heenan's.

"Second chances don't come around often," Heenan said. "I have nothing to lose coming in here and so much to gain. That's how I'm looking at it. I'm doing it for me and Tatiana. Just to have fun. If I go further than this, then I go further. If not, I'm happy. This is a dream come true to be at the Olympic trials."

The trials began Thursday with the men's preliminaries. The women's competition starts Friday night, and the finals are Sunday afternoon.

But hold on, there's still one more hurdle in the obstacle course that is the selection process for the U.S. team.

The top two finishers at trials will be nominated to the Olympic team, but their spots aren't assured until they demonstrate "readiness" at next month's selection camp at the Karolyi ranch. The remaining four members of the team and three alternates will be chosen after a two-day competition at the camp.

While the process may seem shady -- why have an Olympic trials if it doesn't result in a team? -- there is a reason for it. In previous Olympics, five or six gymnasts from each team competed on every event in the team finals, with the lowest score tossed out. But in Athens, only three gymnasts will compete on every event in the team finals, with every score counting. One mistake, and a country can kiss its medal hopes goodbye.

So the United States will take two or three solid all-around gymnasts, then round out the squad with event specialists who can pump up the scores.

"This format gives us flexibility," said Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator. "It gives us a chance to see what the team's needs will be."

Carly Patterson and Courtney Kupets, who tied for first at nationals, are favored to win the top two spots. But things get sticky after that. There are a dozen gymnasts with a shot at those last four spots, and all of them have impressive resumes. Like Tasha Schwikert, the only holdover from the 2000 Olympics and a two-time national champion. Or Hollie Vise, a double gold medalist at last year's worlds. Or up-and-comer Courtney McCool.

Don't overlook Heenan, either. She is one of the best Americans on the uneven bars, winning two national titles in the event as well as the bronze medal at the 2001 worlds.

She was part of the squad that won the Pacific Alliance meet earlier this year, and won the uneven bars title there. She also won the American Classic, beating many of the same gymnasts she'll compete against this weekend.

"For her to have gotten as far as she did is just an amazing accomplishment," John Heenan said. "I told her four years ago, I was beyond proud of what she's accomplished. These last couple years has just been extreme awe of what she's able to do."

And thanks to her father's pep talk, Heenan isn't finished yet.

"I'm really glad now that I (kept training)," she said. "Because this opportunity would have come and somebody else would have been competing and I would have woken up one day like, `Oh, man.' "


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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