She has been hailed as "the next Mary Lou Retton" since February, when she kicked into overdrive at the international American Cup in New York. Carly Patterson, the ponytailed pixie with the 1,000-watt smile, calmly executed her first three performances, each routine polished and controlled, a perfect mix of energy and elegance.
Among spectators in the cavernous Madison Square Garden, tension ran high at the gymnastics event. For the American men, it had become a brutal outing. The team captain dropped from the still rings with a potentially career-ending injury. One man after another blew his routine.
Carly stayed cool. In each event she focused on the move at hand, and then the next. The anxious crowd of thousands, shouting and waving signs, seemed to strengthen her composure.
She began her final event, a floor routine, with a flourish, exploding in a running pass. She tumbled and danced. Another explosion, another running pass. At the end, her wide grin said it all: She had nailed the routine, and swept every top prize at the meet.
Within minutes, Bela Karolyi, the famed coach of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou, ran onto the stage and swept her up in a hug. Both his champions won the American Cup just months before going on to Olympic glory.
But if Carly does become the world's next golden gymnast, it won't be because of Mr. Karolyi or the stringent - some say bullying - East-bloc approach he brought from Romania. It will be because of a Russian, Yevgeny Marchenko, who has softened old-school methods for the American youths he trains. Together, he and his petite protégée could usher in a somewhat kinder, gentler era for gymnastics.
First, Carly needs to earn a ticket to Athens.
That means performing well at the US Nationals this week, at the Olympic Trials later this month, and at intensive camps at the Karolyi ranch in Houston, to which Mr. Marchenko sends his top charges. The six-member Olympic team, coordinated by Martha Karolyi, will be announced in July.
"I have worked really hard all my life just to be here," Carly told a pack of reporters after the American cup in New York. "I don't think about the pressure," she said, her voice high and thin, her delivery somewhat rote. "I try to be as prepared as I can and hit all my routines."
She'll have to hit every routine for the next six weeks if she wants to join the ranks of Nadia and Mary Lou. Gymnastics is an unforgiving sport, and like the four-inch-wide balance beam, Carly's favorite event, the path to success is narrow. One unfocused performance could send the 16-year-old back home to Allen, Texas, instead of into the sport's history books.
For Carly, the bounding run for Athens began in earnest last year, after she won the American Cup for the first time. Yet her journey in the sport began much earlier.
"I was flipping around the house at age 2," she says. She took her first gymnastics class at 6, after she attended a cousin's birthday party at Elite Gymnastics in Baton Rouge, La., where the Pattersons then lived. The gym's head coach, watching the first-grader, approached Carly's mother, who recalls him asking: "Is she in gymnastics? If she isn't, she should be."
Carly competed in her first meet six months later. She entered as a level 4 athlete - there are 10 levels in all, above which come the elites - and placed 13th. By age 9 she was working out 30 hours a week, fitting in schoolwork with tutors at the gym. Her progress was rapid. Gymnastics, she says, was a "fun challenge." Sometimes, she adds, it felt like flying.
In 1999, her father, who worked for Honda, was transferred to Houston. The family didn't know it then, but they were moving to the gymnastics capital of the United States. Some of the country's best coaches are here in Texas, as is the famous Karolyi ranch.
A year later, Carly's dad was transferred again, this time to a suburb north of Dallas. That move brought Carly and Marchenko together at one of the sport's magnet gyms: the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) in Plano, Texas.
Since then, Carly has performed in nearly 20 national and international competitions. She was the youngest competitor at the US Junior Championship in 2000. Two years later, she won that title. In 2003 she won her first American Cup. She also nabbed a silver at the World Championships last year, despite two undiagnosed stress fractures in her elbow.
Yet even as she rolls up victories, other gymnasts, such as Courtney McCool, still follow hard on her heels. Carly remains conscious of her sport's competitive reality: She knows she is one of 19 young Americans eyeing those six slots on the women's roster. She cannot let up.
For Carly, ensuring success means continuously refining the complex skills that have made her the top US gymnast for the past two years. Every day but Sunday, Carly walks through the door at WOGA shortly before 8 a.m., passing beneath a larger-than-life poster of herself.
In it, she is smiling; her straight brown hair sits softly on her shoulders, her black leotard sparkles. But that carefree Carly usually stays outside the gym, up on the wall in the entrance, along with posters of five other elite gymnasts at WOGA. Once Carly steps onto the sea of blue mats, she is mostly business.
Each workout begins the same way, near the ballet barre, where she and other athletes stretch. Carly bends so far forward, her legs in a split, she looks as if she's going to break. Marchenko walks over and pushes her even farther; his 6 ft., 4 in. frame overwhelms her 5ft. figure.
On Monday and Thursday, the elites begin with a ballet class meant to honeartistic presentation and proper positioning of legs and feet. The barre routine is fairly relaxed - pliés, ronds de jambe.
Then the athletes move in rows - doing scissor jumps, backbends, bold leaps, up and down the length of the mats like fierce ballerinas. By 9 a.m., the class ends, and they line up for hugs from Natalya Marakova, their instructor. It is a simple, surprising gesture that says much about the gym's philosophy.
"This is hard work," says Ms. Marakova. "I want to be supportive. Every time, I want to tell someone she did good."
Carly and the others then move on to their first gymnastics event of the day - the uneven parallel bars. Within moments Marchenko joins them, a coffee cup in his hand. One by one, the athletes take turns on the bars. Marchenko spots, calmly issuing a steady stream of comments and corrections. "Good opening, but you've got to put your foot down," he says. "Wait until you reach the bottom of the swing, and then kick."
If he were loud or gruff, Marchenko might be terrifying, standing, as he does, a good 15 to 19 inches above the girls. But intimidation is not his style.
When he immigrated to the US he was the product of a gymnastics system that required him, as a young athlete, to move3,000miles from home to attend a camp. Buthe brought what many consider the best of the East-bloc system with him: an emphasis on healthy habits, a focus on fundamentals, and high standards. What he did not bring: the tyrant mentality that many observers privately associate with Karolyi. (Criticism is often muffled because of the immense power Karolyi still wields.)
Marchenko does not yell or berate. He will not throw an athlete out of the gym if she has a bad day, nor will he embarrass her if she cries. The Russian also refuses to pit one athlete against another. He doesn't expect them to perform at peak level every day. His job, he says, is to make sure they're at the peak of health and fitness when they enter key meets. And almost every meet is key. "They have very short careers," he says.
What really earns the girls' respect, though, is the fact that Marchenko was once a competitive gymnast himself. He and his partner were five-time world champions in Sport Acrobatics, which looks like pairs skating without the ice. At the time, it was not an Olympic event.
"He went through the exact same thing we're doing," says Nikki Childs, who is going to the University of Georgia in the fall on a full scholarship. "He pushes us hard, but he's like a father to me. I can tell him anything."
Marchenko demonstrates his fatherly approach when Carly falters on the parallel bars, her least favorite event. On her first run-through, she has trouble with a key turn and lands sloppily. On her next try, she lands on her bottom.
"Come on, Carly," shout the other girls, who gather at the chalk bucket.
After another failed attempt, Carly's eyes well up. An intensive camp at the Karolyi ranch is just days away. Go into the ladies' room, Marchenko tells her gently, and wash your face.
When Carly returns, she executes a perfect routine and sticks her landing. The other teens move on to new events, but Carly and Marchenko stay for two more run-throughs.
While the bars may be her least-liked event, the balance beam is her favorite. "I like the beam because it's more artistic," she says. "The bars are so technical."
She and Hollie Vise, another potential Olympian, take turns spotting each other. While Carly is on the beam, she sees nothing but that piece of equipment. When she dismounts, though, she is more relaxed.
Carly shifts to her floor routine. "Yevgeny, watch me," she calls, before tearing across the mat.
"Not bad," he says, "try it again." Marchenko stands with his coffee cup, surveying the entire room, which bustles like an ant colony. The atmosphere in the gym is serious but comfortable. "If the coach is professional and calm, the gymnast will be that way," he says.
Carly, he says, has a leg up on many others. "She can look right into the crowd and point out something funny. [As an athlete,] I couldn't," he says.
Shortly after 11 a.m., most of the athletes at WOGA head to school. Carly and several other elites attend nearby Spring Creek Academy, which caters to athletes and actors.
Carly drives herself to Spring Creek in her late-model Honda. Her father, Ricky, who lives in Louisiana and is divorced from Carly's mother, approved the choice of car her mother picked out two weeks before her 16th birthday. She talks to her dad several times by phone each week.
At Spring Creek, Carly, a straight-A student, is noticeably looser and more relaxed. Her teachers, whom she has for five 30-minute classes and a study hall, describe her as laid-back, sweet, and sometimes funny. Spanish and child development are Carly's favorite courses.
Upon arrival, the first order of business is lunch. Carly and several other gymnasts pull out their lunchbags, which reveal a lot about their level of competition. Those who are not on track for the Olympicsmay have chips or cookies in their sack.
Carly has no junk food, ever. Her lunch consists of a can of tuna fish mixed with pickles and mustard. A bottle of vitamin-enriched water completes the meal, her largest of the day. Dinner may be no more than a cup of yogurt or oatmeal.
Most Americans would probably be shocked by how little gymnasts eat. Indeed, in the 1990s, controversy about eating disorders flared, sparked partly by the death of Christy Henrich, a former elite gymnast and anorexic. A 1994 study by the University of Utah also fueled the debate with its finding that, among gymnasts training for the Olympics, 59 percent exhibited some form of eating disorder.
The issue came to a head in 1995 with the publication of "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," by sports columnist Joan Ryan. In her book, Ms. Ryan alleged that gymnasts routinely starved themselves to maintain the kind of boyish, lean figures prized by judges. This practice was encouraged by Bela Karolyi, according to Ryan. (Karolyi's most successful gymnasts defend his methods.) His winning team in 1976 ushered in the era of pixie athletes.
USA Gymnastics, the sport's governing body, has since developed nutrition and wellness programs, but these are voluntary. USAG's steps have also been undercut, Ryan writes, by the fact that the International Gymnastics Federation, which raised the minimum age for Olympians to 16 in 1996, also changed the point system. Since then, athletes have had to perform more difficult and dangerous tricks to win the highest scores in competition. Only petite, prepubescent girls are able to function at this level. Breasts and hips make propulsion difficult.
Marchenko never weighs the girls who train with him, unlike some coaches who do so daily. Still, he acknowledges that judges want a certain look. And Carly, like her peers, often steps on the scale hidden near the vaults.
Others in the field, however, say the media overblow the issue of eating disorders as a problem specific to gymnastics, pointing to its rise among young girls in the general population. Olympic medalist Shannon Miller, who competed in the 2000 Games, is in this group.
"I think it's funny," she says in a phone interview, "that people write about gymnastics and don't know any better. I was eating four or five meals a day." She had to, she says, given her grueling workouts.
At 3 p.m., Carly heads back to the gym for her second workout of the day. If she struggles with a move, she may stay 30 to 60 minutes beyond what's required, just so she can nail the trick once, and then again. Marchenko must sometimes rein her in. If an athlete pushes too hard, she can cause or aggravate injuries, he says.
Marchenko, who calls Carly "Harley Davidson" because of her power, enlists the help of Carly's mother in keeping the gymnast healthy. Natalie Patterson, who was once a gymnast herself, does this by not discussing gymnastics at home.
"Home should be a refuge," Ms. Patterson says. "The gym is her life when she's at the gym, but not when she leaves. When she gets home, she starts instant-messaging her friends," most of whom are fellow gymnasts.
Patterson says her daughter is a typical teenager in many ways. She likes going to movies and the mall, and hanging out in her lime-green room. She also enjoys the family pool, but she is not allowed to aggressively swim laps.
Home isn't always a refuge from the sport, though: Mother and daughter occasionally sit down together to answer fan mail. They no longer have the time to respond personally to each writer. Instead, they send autographed pictures and a form letter.
Carly loves her two cats - Beijing and Java - and her karaoke machine, which she received as a birthday present last year. A trophy case, handmade by her grandfather, holds some of her awards, but they don't overwhelm the decor.
Her younger sister, Jordan, is not a gymnast. Patterson says she tries hard not to make Jordan feel that gymnastics rules their lives. That can be difficult, though, since the sport impacts so many areas.
Carly cannot attend a slumber party, for example. Gymnasts can't afford to be groggy for two or three days afterward. She must also refrain from inline skating or other potentially risky pursuits. Even sitting in a cold car in winter is forbidden.
Some critics of the sport say too many restrictions can carry a cost at a time of life when exposure to a broad palette of experiences is key to development. But others see an upside.
"These little girls are extremely mature," says Robert Neff, a sports psychologist in Dallas who specializes in elite athletes. "They are able to make decisions that are far beyond their years," he adds. "And they have to deal with some big issues - like overcoming fear."
Patterson and her daughter haven't discussed the future much, although Carly does think she'd like to be a dental hygienist, or an orthodontist. "I have a thing for straight, white teeth," she says.
Patterson, a registered nurse, says she is most concerned that her daughter develop good values and understand that everyone must work hard in life. She emphasizes that Carly is motivated solely by her own desire to succeed - not by her parents. "People think that parents and coaches push kids. But Carly does it [gymnastics] because she loves it. Your passion is what makes you tick."
Some of the fringe benefits aren't bad, either. In the last few months, Carly has done a photo shoot for Vogue. "The Today Show" has filmed a segment on the teen. McDonald's has placed her image on 70 million cups and bags.
But dealing with the press is an acquired skill, and lack of experience can show. At the American Cup, a reporter asked Carly if she was ready to be America's next sweetheart.
"What does 'America's sweetheart' mean?' " she asked. The journalist explained the term, and then repeated his question. "Sure," Carly answered brightly, "I like attention."
If Carly does strike gold in Athens, she will bring attention to Marchenko's methods. "It could begin to change the standard by which coaching is defined," says Carl Leland, assistant coach at the University of Denver. "People will start to gravitate toward [Marchenko's] program."
That could be a good thing, he says, since often a few heavy-handed coaches get all the attention. In fact, in his 26 years in the sport, Mr. Leland has seen "a change away from the idea of the 'master over all, cracking the whip' kind of person who stands there and yells and screams to get the results he wants."
At least this is true in the lower echelons of the gymnastics world, he says, which attracts millions of American kids - kids who will be glued to their televisions, hoping to watch Carly make history.