Patterson America's New Golden Girl

Thursday, August 19th 2004, 3:08 pm
By: News On 6

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ Carly Patterson wanted to be an Olympic champion for as long as she can remember, hoping she'd be ``the next Mary Lou'' someday. Now, little girls all over America want to be ``the next Carly.'' Soaring high above the floor and strutting her stuff as if she owned the place, the 16-year-old dynamo became the first U.S. woman to win the Olympic all-around since Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

And in the process, she tumbled her way into the hearts of millions of Americans.

``I'm happy to be a role model,'' Patterson said Thursday night, her smile as bright as the golden medal around her neck. ``It's just cool that little girls look up to me. Hopefully, I can put some confidence in them and make them want to train harder to get this dream, too.''

Patterson knew the gold was hers when she finished her final routine, the floor exercise, and she threw her arms around coach Evgeny Marchenko's neck, buried her face in his shoulder and began to sob. Retton's old coach, Bela Karolyi, jumped for joy and hugged his friends, happy to finally see a champion replace the one he coached at the Los Angeles Games.

When her mark was posted and Patterson's name replaced Russian diva Svetlana Khorkina at the top of the scoreboard, Marchenko hoisted the pony-tailed pixie on his left shoulder and paraded her before the fans.

Khorkina won the silver and Zhang Nan of China took the bronze. The other American in the competition, Courtney Kupets, struggled all night and finished ninth.

``We turned a new page in the history of U.S. gymnastics,'' Marchenko said. ``Since Mary Lou won, it's been 20 years of waiting, a time of reconstruction of our dream and work. Today, it was a great celebration.''

And even though she was thousands of miles away back home, Retton was smack-dab in the center of the fun. U.S. gymnastics officials got her on the phone when it was clear Patterson had won, and Karolyi was yelling and gesturing wildly as he described the meet for her. She got a play-by-play description of the medals ceremony, and someone held the phone up so she could hear ``The Star-Spangled Banner'' play.

``I have been waiting 20 years. Do you hear me? I have been waiting for 20 years,'' Retton said afterward in a telephone interview. ``The crown has been sitting and waiting for the next all-around champion. Carly Patterson, it's yours.''

A few hours later, the handoff was complete as Retton and Patterson chatted on the phone.

``She said she knew I could do it and she knew I had it in me,'' Patterson said. ``She's just really proud and excited for me.''

The victory gave the United States a sweep of the all-around titles _ Paul Hamm became the first U.S. man to win Olympic gold Wednesday night.

America has been searching for its ``next Mary Lou'' since she stepped off the podium in Los Angeles. Some illustrious names have come and gone since then, but none who could quite match Retton.

Until now.

``It means everything in the world to me,'' Patterson said. ``I don't even know what to say, really.''

That's OK. She said all she needed to on the floor.

Khorkina, 25, will go down as one of the best the sport has ever seen. A three-time world champion, she's won a record 20 medals at worlds, and has two Olympic gold medals on the uneven bars. The one, gaping hole on her resume was an Olympic all-around medal, and she was determined to leave Athens with one.

Preferably gold.

Closing her night on the floor dancing to ``Acropolis Adieu,'' she was at her seductive best. Her tumbling passes were graceful and fluid, not the work of a pure jock but of a ballerina who simply works the jumps into the bigger show. But there were mistakes. Often in the past, they have been overlooked, a bow to a star who at times has seemed bigger than the sport.

But when the score, a 9.562, popped up, Khorkina nodded knowingly.

She had left the door open, and Patterson took advantage.

``I was first after my beam routine, so I knew I just had to do a good floor,'' Patterson said. ``You can let your power out and just have fun with the event.''

Patterson may not have Khorkina's incredible grace, but she has power and athleticism to spare. And the brighter the lights, the more she seems to shine.

Performing to a funky, jazzy number, Patterson strutted and sashayed her way across the floor. When it came time for her tumbling passes, no one soared higher or landed more surely. When she touched down on her final pass, a wide grin spread across her face and Khorkina knew she would have to settle for silver.

That didn't stop her from taking a victory lap, though. Grabbing the Russian flag, she jumped up on the uneven bars podium and waved it. Then she slowly pulled it across the lower of the uneven bars, a benediction of the apparatus that's become her trademark.

``I'm still an Olympic champion,'' Khorkina said, referring to her medals on bars.

But she's not THE Olympic champion. That title, and all its glory, belong to Patterson.

``You dream about this your whole life,'' Patterson said. ``Then you win the gold medal, it's just amazing.''