Gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj says her credit cards were maxed out, she was deep in debt and her mental state, at least before a few weeks ago, was miserable. Knowing Bhardwaj could not afford to attend this weekend's U.S. Olympic trials, friends at her home gymnasium in Los Angeles sold raffle tickets on her behalf. Somebody's mother offered a ticket to a friend, who also happened to be former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson.
Rather than buying a ticket, Anderson wrote Bhardwaj a check.
On Friday night, Bhardwaj's out-of-the-blue sponsor sat near the floor at Arrowhead Pond waving a "GoMo" sign -- and Bhardwaj got going. The 25-year-old post-collegiate gymnast who has worked at a cocktail bar and pizza parlor in the past year to pay the bills gave Anderson an encouraging early return on her investment.
Bhardwaj, who competed at the 1996 Olympic trials but did not make the team, wowed the crowd with the night's second-best score on the vault and one of the top scores on the uneven bars as she slid into sixth place going into Sunday's final, a meaningful spot given that six women will be named to the U.S. Olympic team by mid-July. Gaithersburg's Courtney Kupets held the overall lead with Courtney McCool, Terin Humphrey and Carly Patterson close behind. Katie Heenan of South Riding withdrew from the finals on Saturday.
"I think I definitely made an impression" on national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, Bhardwaj said late Friday night. "I'm kind of hard to ignore when the whole arena is screaming for me."
Anderson, who gave Bhardwaj a congratulatory pat on the back but did not speak to reporters, decided to help Bhardwaj after attending a practice and learning she was a lifelong vegetarian, according to Bhardwaj's and Anderson's Web site. Bhardwaj's father, who is Indian, and mother, a Russian, are both vegetarians. Anderson has been an activist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) since she was in high school.
Anderson's donation, Bhardwaj said, will cover about half of her expenses over a six-month stretch. With the money, Anderson created a foundation on Bhardwaj's behalf and has been soliciting donations for her on her Web site.
"It was stressful," said Bhardwaj, a member of the 1997 and 2001 world championship teams. "You're just in debt and miserable, and it just alleviated a lot of the stress on my part. I think I would be a nervous wreck if I didn't know she was [helping] me."
Even so, Bhardwaj said, she still has money problems. Because she briefly retired from the sport after dislocating her elbow during the 2002 U.S. championships, she lost her place on the national team. In so doing, she also lost her standing to request available funds from either from USA Gymnastics or the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Her situation, she said, is vastly different than most of the high schoolers or collegians competing here. She has car payments, rent, bills. When she travels, she must pay expenses for herself and her coach. And she still hasn't finished her education at UCLA, where she is no longer eligible to compete. She said she is a couple of classes away from finishing a double major in history and sociology.
As a vegetarian, she has other challenges, such as feeding herself during national team training camps at the Karolyi ranch. There, she said, the training table is generally stocked with chicken, beef and fish. Bhardwaj brings along her own soy meat products and devours servings of vegetables throughout the day, she said.
"Athletes . . . shouldn't have to be in the position I've been in in the last six months," Bhardwaj said. "There's nothing for women in the sport my age. . . . We're not 14 or 18 years old living with our parents. It's hard to train 40 hours a week and have a job."
Bhardwaj said she returned to the sport despite its hardships because she didn't want to miss out on her last -- and only -- Olympic opportunity.
"I live my life by the motto of having no regrets," she said. "I didn't want to look back and regret not trying to make this Olympic team. Regardless of what happens, I will be able to look back with a clear conscience.
"I love this sport. I am addicted to the pursuit of the Olympic dream."
Note: Heenan, who trains in Burke, withdrew because of back soreness, she said Saturday. Heenan, last in the field of 16 after a rough outing Friday, said her back had been troubling her all week and she wanted to ensure that she did not injure it seriously.