ATHLETE IN THE SPOTLIGHT Raj Bhavsar | GYMNASTICS

Bhavsar Stuck in an Alternate Universe

Raj Bhavsar, shown competing on the parallel bars at team trials last month in Philadelphia, is a team alternate again, just as in 2004.
Raj Bhavsar, shown competing on the parallel bars at team trials last month in Philadelphia, is a team alternate again, just as in 2004. (By Nick Laham -- Getty Images)
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Four years ago, Raj Bhavsar adamantly believed he deserved a spot on the gymnastics team that would represent the United States at the Athens Olympics. Yet when the team was named, the reigning national champion on still rings had to swallow hard. He was on the team -- sort of. Merely an alternate, he straddled the odd line of being forced to train but being unable to compete.

With that experience behind him, Bhavsar remade himself mentally in the run-up to Beijing.

"I set out a goal at the beginning of the year," Bhavsar said. "I worked hard. I worked on my mental game plan. I reshaped my spiritual character. I did everything possible to be on this team."

Yet when the team was announced last week following the Olympic trials, the 27-year-old from Houston was in the exact same place he was in four years ago. Six men were named to the team. Bhavsar had to deal with, once again, being one of three alternates.

So as he sat explaining his situation only hours after he found out his fate, Bhavsar knew exactly what lay ahead. "It's obviously a lot of emotion involved," he said. But he also said this time around -- four years older, armed with that overhauled approach -- he was much better equipped to deal with his role.

"The wisdom in me and the experience in me, I know how to handle this," Bhavsar said. "It's not devastation. It's not over-excitement. I'm kind of just very even-keeled right now."

He could be excused for being a bit more frustrated this time, though. The vagaries of the men's selection process set up by USA Gymnastics officials dictated that should a gymnast place in the top three in three different disciplines and place in the top two in the all-around competition, he would automatically be named to the team.

Bhavsar nearly did his part. He was third on the rings and the vault and second on parallel bars. But that left him third behind Jonathan Horton and Joey Hagerty in the all-around. Over four days of competition between national championships and the trials, he was .08 of a point from automatically qualifying for the team.

Now, Bhavsar might be the only person involved with USA Gymnastics who wouldn't mind if the broken bone in the right hand of Paul Hamm, the 2004 Olympic all-around gold medalist, didn't heal in time for Beijing.

"I think it's going to come down to the very last minute," Bhavsar said. "It's my job to stay ready for anything."

It is a job with which he is perhaps too familiar.

"There's going to be days where you're not going to feel like you want to do it," he said. "There's going to be days where you're like, 'I'm an alternate. Why am I doing this?' Those are the days you have to dig very, very deep and search the center of your heart and be ready for these guys."

-- Barry Svrluga


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