- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When she was perfect, she couldn't do it. Perfect was back in 1996. She was the perfect age for a gymnast (18), on the perfect team (the '96 team won gold in Atlanta). She had perfect credit. Everything was set. Until the U.S. Olympic team trials.
That's where Mohini Bhardwaj finished 10th. Only the top six made the team. She was out.
Now, she's not perfect. She's 25. She's competing for a trip to Athens on the deepest women's gymnastics team ever. Her credit is a mess due to credit cards maxed-out trying to keep her Olympic dreams alive. She finished sixth in Sunday's U.S. team trials, but because finishing in the top six is no longer an automatic qualifier, all she did was earn another chance to make the team later this month in Texas.
But that is what's strange about Bhardwaj's life. When she seemed perfect, she wasn't. Now that she's not, she is.
And the help of one supermodel has helped Bhardwaj realize that.
Bhardwaj was a natural. Growing up in Cincinnati, she first fell for gymnastics at age 5. Bhardwaj's first coach told her parents, father Kaushal (who is from India) and mother Indu (who grew up in Russia) that Mohini needed advanced training. She could be an Olympian. She was that good.
Mom and Dad listened. When Mohini was 13, she went to Orlando to train with famed coach Rita Brown. Indu went along, living with Mohini. Then, three years later, Mohini followed Brown to Houston. This time Mom stayed home.
Mohini was 16 with her own place. She had no one telling her to do the dishes, to make her bed, to do her homework, to be home at midnight. What resulted sounds like something from "Drew Barrymore's Guide to High School."
She started drinking and drank too much, too often. She started smoking cigarettes. She skipped class. There were rumors she was in a gang. She gained 10 pounds, which for a 4-foot-10 gymnast is like adding a third arm.
But that was when she was perfect: She finished third in the U.S. Championships, had been on the national team for six years, and got a full ride to UCLA. At UCLA, she kept partying, and nearly fell apart. Finishing 10th at the Olympics team trials in 1996 was so embarrassing that in 2000 she didn't even bother trying out. Talent wasn't the problem. Her head was. Her coach at UCLA, Valerie Kondos Field, told the Los Angeles Times in 2001 she was "a poster child for everything that's good and bad about gymnastics."
Bhardwaj finished her career at UCLA strong, setting the Bruin record for most 10.0 scores with eight. Soon, she realized she wanted back into gymnastics with a hope to make the Olympics. The timing couldn't have been worse. She was in her 20s competing against teenagers. She didn't have any sponsorship. She was done partying and staying up all night, but now things like rent, bills and car payments could keep her from her dream. To get by, she worked at a pizza place, she worked as a waitress in a cocktail lounge, she coached. She aged. She worked nights just so she could train 40 hours a week. "I was in debt and I was miserable," she says.
She tried to save the money to compete in this weekend's trials, but it was going nowhere. But then some friends of hers started a donation, and it got the attention of someone who knows all about second chances:
Yes, that Pamela Anderson.
Anderson attended one of Bhardwaj's practices. After, they talked. Soon, Anderson wrote a check for what's believed to be $20,000 to keep Bhardwaj's goals alive. "I don't know if I would have been able to do this (without Anderson)," Bhardwaj said.
Said Anderson: "It's one of the best things I've ever done."
On Friday, with Anderson waving a "GoMo" sign, Bhardwaj scored the second-best on the vault. On Sunday, she tied for the second best, and the buzz was that she was the hot choice to be added to the team to compete in that event. "I'm very consistent in the vault competition," she said. "To make the team, everything counts."
After Sunday's competition, Bhardwaj didn't sound like a misguided teen straightened. She sounded like a confident competitor ready to win a trip to the Olympics. "I'm doing this for myself and for my life," she said. "Not for anyone else."
Well, maybe she's doing it a little for someone else. Just as Bhardwaj was talking, Anderson walked into the room. She gave Bhardwaj a quick congratulations and then, with approximately every male's eyes locked, smartly left. Bhardwaj just grinned. "She helped me a lot. Now I want to make it to Athens."
Now that would be perfect.
Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine.
Mohini Bhardwaj's Olympics dream was kept alive by Pamela Anderson. That's right, Pamela Anderson.