Making a Name for Himself

John Roethlisberger isn't a household word but that's OK with him

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In gymnastics, the public is often on a first-name basis with the superstars. Olga preceded Nadia, Mary Lou, Shannon, and now Dominique. To complete the IDs, their given names are Korbut, Comaneci, Retton, Miller, and Moceanu.

John Roethlisberger certainly can't compete with this group for name recognition, but then again solid, unadorned "John" is well suited for the leading man of American gymnastics.

Roethlisberger just competed for a spot on the United States Olympic team at the US gymnastics trials in Boston, where with his trademark steadiness he finished first Saturday in a battle for seven berths.

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In the process, he won back the right to call himself the best American male gymnast from friend and rival Blaine Wilson, who wrested the US title from Roethlisberger at the national championships held last month in Knoxville, Tenn.

Despite being a three-time college champion at the University of Minnesota, a four-time national all-around champion, and now a two-time Olympic team member, Roethlisberger is virtually an unknown to casual fans of his sport. That's because he's a male gymnast in a sport that seems to revolve around women, and also because his strength is consistency not flashiness.

"I know I'm not the type of guy who can be consistent and try to please other people at the same time," Roethlisberger said while sitting next to his father-coach, Fred, during a media session.

"I'm doing the most difficult stuff that I can do. As long as I know I'm pushing myself as far as I can, there's nothing else I can do. This is me," he concludes with take-it-or-leave-it finality.

Fred Roethlisberger jumps into explain that his son has actually added significant "difficulty" to all his routines since last year's world championships in Sabae, Japan.

Roethlisberger coaches the gymnastics team at the University of Minnesota, where John was a 1992 and '93 academic All-American while studying international business. From his perspective, Fred considers his son's intensity unusual.

"I've never seen anybody compete like him," he says. "Every day in practice is like the Olympic trials or the Olympics. I've never seen anybody try so hard day in and day out, year after year."

Fred was an Olympic gymnast in 1968 and John's older sister, Marie, served as an alternate on the Retton-led 1984 US women's team that won the bronze medal. Marie, however, never had an opportunity to compete.

The Roethlisbergers may deserve to be called the first family of American gymnastics. John's paternal grandparents, both gymnasts, moved from Switzerland to Milwaukee and became active with the Milwaukee Turners, an organization rooted in the European tumbling community. Roethlisberger plans to stay in the sport another year so that he can close out his competitive career at the 1997 world championships in Switzerland.

"It's been a big advantage for me to have two Olympians in my family," Roethlisberger says. "For other people the Olympics can seem a far-off, impossible thing, but I woke up every day with the thought of being there. I don't mean to sound cocky or arrogant. I just always felt in my heart that I was destined to go to the Olympics too."

His gymnastics journey began as a preschooler, when he would accompany his father to work and bounce and romp on the mats while his dad coached.

Roethlisberger says that gymnastic gyms are "the greatest playgrounds in the world for little kids," but that the sport is a lot tougher for young boys than other sports are." He played soccer and baseball and found them easier and more readily rewarding. To learn gymnastic skills, he discovered, took time and a fair degree of physical maturity.

"Gymnastics is real tough," he says, "because we develop the [needed] strength a lot later, at the end of high school."

Then, too, there is so much skill required and so little room for error. In the all-around competition, which was the basis for making the Olympic team, gymnasts compete in six events: still rings, pommel horse, floor exercise, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal bar. Because of the demanding nature of these events, most last a minute or less.

"The uniqueness and intensity of our sport comes from always having to be focused and sharp," Roethlisberger says. "That makes it different from a basketball or hockey game, in which you can make a bad play and still have an incredible game. Michael Jordan misses half his [basketball] shots, but if he missed half his gymnastics skills, he'd be nowhere."

Men's Fitness magazine rated gymnastics the world's most difficult sport. Roethlisberger agrees, comparing it to the decathlon. "You go from the rings where you have to have the strength to hold a static position," he says, "to the vault, where you have to run like a sprinter.

"Dan O'Brien [decathlon world record holder] thinks he's going to be the world's greatest athlete this summer, but I think the greatest athlete is going to be decided in [Atlanta's] Georgia Dome."

In his estimation, Belarus's Vitaly Scherbo and China's Li Xiaoshuang should battle it out for the men's Olympic all-around title, as they did in last year's world championship, won by Xiaoshuang. Roethlisberger finished 30th in that competition, five spots behind Blaine Wilson, the top American.

The US team opened some eyes with a third place in the compulsory-routine portion of the competition, but was 11th in the optionals and ninth overall. That's a far cry from 1984, when the US men won the team gold medal over China at the Los Angeles Olympics.

American men's gymnastics has fallen on hard times since, with the number of collegiate programs that feed the national team dropping precariously. USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, is scrambling to address the situation.

Does it bother him that women, who outnumber the men in US gymnastics, are the sport's bigger stars?

"No," Roethlisberger replies without hesitation. "I think they deserve everything they get. My sister was a gymnast and I was really proud of her and looked up to her. I don't mind taking a little bit of a backseat to the women. It doesn't take anything away from what I'm doing and the pride I feel in my sport."

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