Making a Name for Himself
John Roethlisberger isn't a household word but that's OK with him
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."