America's best gymnasts, Blaine Wilson and John Roethlisberger, are a study in contrasts
The two finest male gymnasts in the U.S. were trying to execute a handshake after last Friday's qualifying meet for the American team at next month's world championships in Tianjin, China. First-place finisher Blaine Wilson, 25, had tape wrapped around his left fingers and ice on his right shoulder and wasn't sure which hand to extend. Runner-up John Roethlisberger, 29, was stretching the left calf he had just strained on his high-bar dismount and unstrapping the brace on his right knee. Finally the two men with eight national all-around tides and seven operations between them plopped down on adjacent chairs in Municipal Auditorium, in Kansas City, Mo., exchanged way-to-go's and called it a celebration. "You won't find two grittier competitors," says John's father and coach, Fred, a 1968 Olympic gymnast. "Even if they get there in different ways."
At 5'9", John Roethlisberger is the model gymnast, finely chiseled, precise and rarely flamboyant. He sleeps 10 hours a night, forswears junk food, is married to a school teacher and likes classical music. His relentless training regimen has made his name part of the gymnastics lexicon. "Want to scare people?" says Wilson. "Tell 'em, 'We're doing Roethlisbergers today.' " If he earns an Olympic berth next summer, Roethlisberger will be the first gymnast 30 or older on a U.S. Olympic team since Jim Culhane in 1972.
At 5'4", Wilson is dynamic and unpredictable. He travels by Harley and competes as though he were doing motocross. He got engaged in August 1998 and was unengaged by the following January. His coaches on junior, college and national teams have all kicked him out of gyms for tantrums. U.S. gymnastics officials have had to persuade him to remove the ring from his eyebrow and the tiny barbell from his tongue during meets. He wants to do stunt work after he returns to finish his degree in psychology at Ohio State. "When I was 13,1 smoked, drank and got into fights," Wilson says. "After sophomore year [of high school] I got more serious about gymnastics, which turned me around."
To those who know Wilson, his attitude is at least part affectation. Ron Brant, coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, says the U.S. squad's team-first, me-second attitude starts with Wilson. When Wilson incorporated a new skill into his rings routine last Friday without alerting his coaches—he crossed the rings in an L-support and uncrossed them while pressing to a handstand—it was in tribute to former teammate Jason Whitfield, who taught Wilson the skill before dying in a motorcycle accident in 1991.
Since the U.S. men won the team tide at the 1984 Games, they have placed no higher than fifth at a worlds or an Olympics. Given their health concerns—on top of Roethlisberger's and Wilson's aches and pains, 19-year-old future star Jason Gatson tore his anterior cruciate ligament last month—a team medal will probably be on hold until at least next September's Olympics in Sydney.
Roethlisberger and Wilson will wait Roethlisberger has made an eight-man event final at a worlds or an Olympics only once but has placed ninth or 10th seven times. At the 1998 nationals he tore the ACL in his right knee and competed on two more apparatuses before withdrawing. Wilson was poised to make junior national teams in '89 and '90 when he had to undergo operations on his right hand and left shoulder, respectively. He had surgery on his right shoulder in '98.
"Well be ready," Wilson says of the Olympics. "I'm a hot-headed s.o.b. John's a kick-your-ass workaholic. One thing I learned from John: Pain don't hurt."
Adds Roethlisberger, "You mean 'doesn't hurt.' "
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