Tasha Schwikert walked off the podium at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Philadelphia last month, having finished a 10-month evolution from accidental tourist on the Olympic team to U.S. leader for the next quadrennium. After winning her first national all-around tide, the 16-year-old Schwikert spoke with the swagger of a veteran. "I feel ready to lead the new generation," she said. That may sound cocky coming from a kid who made the Sydney Games only as an 11th-hour substitute. Still, as the only woman with Olympic experience on the current U.S. team, Schwikert appears ready for such a lofty vault.
She also has a history of making dramatic progress. Tasha's mother, Joy, a former professional tennis player (she competed in mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1974) who returned to her hometown of Las Vegas and became a craps dealer, was 7� months pregnant when she went to her doctor on Nov. 21, 1984, suffering from abdominal pains. "Suddenly I realized a foot was coming out of me," Joy recalls. Doctors delivered two children, one stillborn. The other, Tasha, weighed four pounds and was kept in an incubator for three weeks. When Tasha went home, Joy dressed her in Cabbage Patch doll clothes.
Joy sent Tasha and her younger sister, Jordan, to gymnastics class starting when each turned three and watched them thrive. (Jordan, 15, is the No. 7 U.S. junior.) "I wanted the girls to be active, not just sit around and play dress up," says Joy. Working under coach Cassie Rice, Tasha developed a coveted combination of polish and amplitude. However, when five members of the Magnificent Seven squad, which won the team tide at the Atlanta Games, unretired to join an already strong corps of contenders, Schwikert became a long shot to make the team for Sydney. In June 2000 she suffered a stress fracture in her left foot. For five weeks she channeled all her energy into recovery and rehab. Says Tom Kocher, the physical therapist who treated Schwikert, "I've worked with 18 world champion boxers—Michael Dokes, Tony Tucker, Ray Mancini—and Tasha is the toughest athlete I've seen."
Schwikert placed ninth at the Olympic trials in August 2000 and was picked as the non-traveling second alternate to a team of six. Two days later she received a surprise invitation to the team's training camp in Sydney. "I told myself, No one expects much, so go after it," she says. Her improvement amazed U.S. program coordinator Bela Karolyi, who dubbed her Miracle Kid. When Morgan White's ankle injury persisted, Schwikert was chosen to compete over first alternate Alyssa Beckerman, sending a wave of high fives through the dice pits at Caesars, where Tasha's father, Shannon Warren, works along with Joy. In Sydney, Schwikert averaged 9-5 for five routines, helping the team rally to a fourth-place finish. "Many girls give away points—a wobble, a bad landing, tenths here and there," says Karolyi. "Tasha is solid. She fights for that landing."
In the past year Schwikert has added a release skill on the uneven bars, a harder mount on the balance beam and a new tumbling pass on the floor. Despite favorable forecasts for the group the countiy will send to Athens for the 2004 Games, neither Schwikert nor the inexperienced U.S. squad will be among the favorites next month at the world championships in Ghent, Belgium. Then again, don't bet against the kid from Las Vegas who has already beaten the odds.