среда, 19 сентября 2012 г.

Baton Rouge still home for Patterson.(The Dallas Morning News) - Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

Byline: Cathy Harasta

BATON ROUGE, La. _ A few blocks from the McDonald's, a quaint brick building sits beside an old oak veiled in gauzy Spanish moss. The tree, with its spellbinding grace, gives a fairytale feel to this mid-scale commercial neighborhood.

No conspicuous thread connects the Golden Arches and the brick facility, home of Elite Gymnastics (motto: Your child is ALWAYS Number 1).

But the same Olympic gymnast featured on burger bags is pictured on framed magazine covers inside the cozy gym.

Carly Rae Patterson was here.

Patterson, 16, an Allen, Texas, resident, will lead the favored U.S. women in the team final at the Athens Olympics Tuesday.

North Texas proudly claims Patterson, a world champion with the chance to become one of the Games' biggest stars. But as a native of Baton Rouge, Patterson had a life before her Texas years. Among her nurturing influences was her first gym, where the whimsical flourished and jumping for joy was its own reward.

Her career began in 1994 at Elite Gymnastics, owned by Johnny Moyal, the son of a ballerina who survived the Holocaust. Moyal, a three-time Olympian for Israel and an All-American at Louisiana State University, instantly recognized that Patterson was not your average tumbler.

'What made her unique was that Carly lived in her own `Carly World,'.' Moyal said. 'It was a world that shielded her. She didn't need somebody to kick her butt.

'I told her she would make the Olympics.'

Patterson made friends and practiced her flips at Elite before she began to accrue her string of nicknames _ 'Snarly,' because it rhymed with Carly; the 'Cajun Sensation,' because of her roots; and 'Harley Davidson,' owing to her powerful athletic execution.

In her hometown, she enjoyed cafe au lait as a frequent treat. She and her cousins romped at her grandparents' riverside home, where alligators would drift by now and then. And each time she entered the gym, the towering oak enthralled her.

'Baton Rouge is home,' she said. 'I had a lot of fun growing up there.'

Patterson never took herself too seriously, said those who knew her before her family left the Louisiana capital for Texas in 1999.

She trained for more than five years at Elite before she landed at Plano's World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in 2000.

At Elite, Patterson learned the fundamentals in an environment that encouraged her to dream big. She polished her technique and added skills at WOGA, going on to win a world team gold medal and losing the world all-around championship by a margin of just .188 points last year.

As a toddler, Patterson, now a 95-pound 5-footer, demonstrated an uncommon affinity for grabbing onto bars, leaping and flipping.

Her mother, Natalie, often took Patterson to a shady park next to Jefferson Terrace Elementary School. Patterson had become proficient at swinging on the bars of her backyard swing set and needed more challenging playground equipment.

'Carly was very muscular from the time she was 2 years old,' Natalie said. 'She got up on water skis on her first try.'

Though Natalie had spent five years as a gymnast, she said she didn't consider putting her daughter in the sport. Then Patterson's cousin, Farin Fabre, held her 8th birthday party at Elite. Moyal was in the gym training his athletes when he noticed one of the little party guests.

As Patterson, then 6, jumped into a pit of yellow foam cubes, Moyal decided to ask her parents for permission to evaluate her skills.

'She had a great physical look for gymnastics,' said Moyal, who still has charts that gives the dates of Patterson's first time to perform each skill. 'It was the way she was hanging on the bar.'

On her first day in training, the other gymnasts marveled at Patterson's physique and fortitude.

'We just looked at her stomach muscles and said, `Wow!'.' said Jodi Nohra, now 17 and no longer a competitive gymnast. 'She had no fear whatsoever.'

Patterson's former training partner, Amanda Comeaux, 17, said she and Patterson spent time together outside the gym.

'We both always wanted to be orthodontists,' Comeaux said. 'We'd have sleepovers and stay up late with our little stuffed animals, pretending they were our dental clients.

'We did some crazy stuff.'

In Elite Gymnastics' black-and-white tiled lobby, Patterson's picture hangs beside a printed reproduction of a speech by Vince Lombardi. The tiny frog stickers that Patterson pasted on her locker still are intact. They'll stay there, as enchanting as the oak tree in the yard, which Moyal said is 400 years old and a symbol of power and endurance.

'They made it fun for you there,' Patterson said. 'Johnny was like a frog freak. We'd give him frogs for presents. We did a lot of playing.'

Moyal, 47, worked with Patterson until 1999, when her father, Ricky made an auto industry career move to Houston. Patterson trained briefly at Brown's Gymnastics until the next year, when Ricky's work brought him to North Texas. Patterson started training at WOGA, where the atmosphere is more austere and Dalmatians do not frolic among the gymnasts.

'Carly and Johnny had a unique connection,' said Ricky Patterson, who moved back to his hometown of Denham Springs, a suburb of Baton Rouge, when he and Natalie divorced two years ago. 'Johnny had a great atmosphere in the gym. It seemed Carly knew her path. We never had to push her one day. It was natural. It was desire.'

Natalie _ one of John and Bettye Mitchell's five children _ consulted her daughter's first-grade teacher, Sandra Applewhite, about taking Patterson out of traditional school. Applewhite, whose son, Major, played quarterback for the University of Texas, said she understood Natalie's desire to try home-schooling for her daughter, giving her the chance to spend more time training for her sport.

'Children at different ages get a dream,' said Applewhite, who now lives in Colleyville, Texas, and teaches in Southlake. 'Major got his dream in the eighth grade. When Carly was in the first grade, she had her mind made up. She was not the type of child who needed a lot of peer stimulation. Carly and her parents saw her dream and reached out for it.'

Natalie, a nurse, and her three sisters are in Athens to cheer for Patterson. Farin Fabre's freshman fall at LSU kept her from making the trip to see her cousin compete at the Games. But Farin reminded her mom and aunts that it was her childhood birthday party that launched Patterson's career.

'When she competes, we're usually quiet or nervous,' Farin said. 'But we do yell at the TV set.'

Indeed, the family gets animated, affectionate banter flying when everyone gets together. Leslie Yander, Patterson's aunt, said Carly didn't get her gymnastic ability from Aunt Leslie.

'I was never able to do a cartwheel,' she said with a laugh.

'Yeah, well, Carly does enough cartwheels for all of us,' said Patterson's aunt Lauren Fabre.

Patterson could become the biggest name in her sport since Mary Lou Retton, who 20 years ago became the first U.S. gymnast to win the prized Olympic all-around title. But unlike the Soviet-boycotted Los Angeles Games, at which Retton starred, the Athens Olympics are not missing any nations.

'I just hope Carly can achieve her dream,' said Patterson's grandmother, Bettye Mitchell. 'She's accomplished so much.'

It has kept John Mitchell busy. Mitchell, a retired machine-shop owner, handcrafts trophy cases for his granddaughter. At the rate Patterson fills them, her grandfather spends plenty of time in his home workshop beside the Amite River.

'I remember when Carly would walk across the top of picnic tables,' John Mitchell said, his eyes bright with the recollection. 'There's a lot of discipline in sports, which is good. But there are so very few gold medals out there.'

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_____

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Carly

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(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

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