Though 17-year-old Vanessa Atler hasn't competed at a world championship or an Olympics, people are already flipping over her a year before the Games. Atler's style is an uncommon blend of polish and pop, her grin seems to end on the back of her head, and her cheery disposition is infectious. She may be the world's best vaulter and is a threat to medal on the beam and in floor exercise. She has also run her own Web site since 1996 and done a candy commercial for TV.
Comparisons to Mary Lou Ret-ton are inevitable but premature. Atler didn't compete in Kansas City, having petitioned her way onto the U.S. team for the worlds to rest a sore left ankle. She led the last three national all-around competitions but fell off the uneven bars each time. Thus, she shared the title in 1997 and finished second behind Kristin Maloney in '98 and '99. On Sept. 3 she left Beth and Steve Rybacki, her coaches of 6 years in Covina, Calif., and won't select a new coach until after worlds.
Atler will post the first updates about her coaching decision on her site (www.atler.com), where browsers can hear the 1984 Olympic theme song, note the time—down to the second—until the Sydney Games and take part in whatever contest she has most recently dreamed up. Seven fans sent in videos of themselves for Atler's saltine-eating challenge. In her on-line diary Atler gives praise to opponents, points out when she is overscored by judges or over-hyped in TV promos, and urges fellow gymnasts to eat properly.
Atler's other ruminations have included the observation that marshmallow and grammar would be easier to spell if they had e's in them, and after a sub-par meet in February 1997, she posted her Top 10 Reasons Why Vanessa Atler's Meet Didn't Suck! Among them: She got home earlier because nobody wanted her autograph, and she didn't get a sore neck from wearing medals.
Some of her activities on the Web haven't been so frivolous. At the 1998 Goodwill Games, Atler was on the vault runway waiting her turn behind China's Sang Lan when Sang landed on her head and suffered a paralyzing injury. Atler went on to win gold in the event and then sold one of her outfits on eBay for $1,000 and donated the money to Sang's medical fund.