Annia Hatch and her husband, Alan, were surfing the Internet one night when they came across an item about a former teammate of Annia's. The woman had given birth to a boy and had just begun her comeback in gymnastics.

Annia had been retired from the sport for five years. But she decided at that moment that if her former teammate could return after having a baby, then why couldn't she? She was the same age as the other gymnast and had stayed in shape while coaching gymnastics in Connecticut, often showing younger gymnasts how to perform various maneuvers on the beam, floor, vault and bars.

"I was a little sore," she admitted. "But I was so excited to be back that I didn't think about it."

Annia had considered her gymnastics career a thing of the past. At 23 she was old for her sport. She was married, too. The last time she had competed, in 1997, she was known by her maiden name, Annia Potuondo.

And the last time she competed it was for another country: Cuba.

Today, at 25, Annia Hatch will compete in an international competition as an American citizen for the first time in her career. Hatch was chosen to replace two-time defending national champion Tasha Schwikert, who is recovering from ankle surgery, on the roster for the Visa American Cup today at Patriot Center.

"It's very exciting for me," Hatch said. "I feel really proud."

In Cuba, Annia was a national hero. She had won six gold medals in the Central American Games and was invited to meet Fidel Castro. In 1996, she became Cuba's first world champion, when she captured the gold medal in the vault. Her medals and honors earned her a two-bedroom apartment from the Cuban government.

"It was small," she said. "But it was real good for Cuba."

She had everything she wanted: her family, gymnastics and a world title. But she didn't get a chance to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She won two silver medals at the 1995 Pan American Games, but Cuban officials told her the performance wasn't good enough for an Olympic berth.

Hatch competed in one event in 1997 and then retired. She fell in love with Alan, a former gymnast, whom she met in 1996 in Puerto Rico. In December 1997, they married. Because it was impossible for Alan, a native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., to live in Cuba, the couple moved to the United States.

She wanted to study fashion and coach gymnastics. Then the thought of returning to competition popped into her mind. Hatch began training in 2001 and was strong enough to place fourth in the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Cleveland last August.

Even though she had been sworn in as a U.S. citizen in December 2001, the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), the sport's international governing body, would not allow her to compete for another country for at least a year unless Cuba granted her a waiver. Cuba didn't, so Hatch had to wait until this past December to become eligible to compete for the United States in an FIG meet.

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy," she said. "There were other cases of different athletes trying to compete in the United States and Cuba wasn't going to help that happen.

"But I wasn't going to give up."

Hatch's quick comeback might have come as a bit of a surprise to her, but not to her husband, who doubles as her coach in Cheshire, Conn.

"I've always told Annia that she's very strong," Alan said. "She's very artistic, too. I told her it wouldn't be a problem for her."

Tatiana Perskaia, who coaches world champion Ashley Postell at Capital Gymnastics in Burke, remembers seeing Hatch compete for Cuba and said based on her skills then, it's no surprise she's as strong as she is now.

"I was pretty impressed by her when I saw her at the [1996] world championships," Perskaia said. "She had the power and the difficulty. Then she was able to rest her body for a few years."

Hatch might be 25, but she continues to experiment with new skills. At a national team training camp last week at Bela and Martha Karolyi's ranch outside of Houston, Hatch unveiled new bar and floor routines.

"As soon as her floor music came on, it got silent in the gym," Alan said. "People were just watching her routine. Martha was very, very impressed, and she's tough to impress with floor routines."

Martha Karolyi is the U.S. women's team coach, and she was one of the people who selected the team for the American Cup.

"She's in excellent physical shape," said Karolyi, adding that Hatch's floor and vault routines were "100 percent excellent."

Her new floor routine is to Flamenco music called "Esperanza," which in Spanish translates to "hope" -- an appropriate choice for someone who hopes to compete in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"Her Olympic dream was already taken away from her once by Cuba," Alan said. "So she would be so happy to compete in the Olympics."