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Making a Name for Himself

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

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 1996


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.

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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.

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."