Winchester's Sacramone will compete for Brown while maintaining her focus on Beijing Olympics
By John Powers, Globe Staff | January 3, 2007
PROVIDENCE -- There are times, during the night ride back to campus from Ashland, when Alicia Sacramone wonders whether she's nuts to be putting herself through this. "I'm driving back from practice and I think, 'What am I doing?' " says the best women's gymnast ever to come out of Massachusetts.
Nobody else on the US team is going to college while preparing for the Olympics. Nobody has tried it since Amy Chow , who was at Stanford when she came out of retirement to make the US team in 2000. If a woman is serious about making it to the Games, she all but lives at her club for four years. College is where elite gymnasts go to retire. "There are a lot of skeptics out there who don't think Alicia will compete for us," says Brown coach Sara Carver-Milne .
Not with the Beijing Games only 19 months away. Not with Sacramone likely to win medals in both vault and floor exercise. Even her teammates scratch their heads. "They're like, 'You're crazy,' " says the 19-year-old Winchester native, who captained the team at last summer's world championships in Denmark, where she won a silver in vault.
Nobody said that when Blaine Wilson , a three-time Olympian, went to Ohio State or when John Roethlisberger , another three-timer, competed for Minnesota. "Guys do it all the time," observes Sacramone. "Why not girls?"
The way Sacramone sees it, the choice was simple -- don't choose. She wanted to go to college and she wanted to compete for the US. "It's a tough decision and I decided I didn't want to have to make that decision," she says. "So I'm doing both."
Doing both means going to class, practicing with her Brown teammates (whose season begins this month), then zipping up to Ashland ("95 to 495 to 126 -- 40 minutes") twice a week to work out with longtime coach Mihai Brestyan at his American Gymnastics Club.
"I'm always running around," says Sacramone, who is used to a scrambled schedule from her high school days. "I'm always late because I can never be on time, but I try to be."
What helps is that everyone involved wants her high-wire act to work. "If it's possible for Alicia to do it, it would be a good example for everybody," says US team coordinator Martha Karolyi. "We are losing a lot of girls who think that just because they are going to college, they decline the opportunity to do elite gymnastics."
Ivy League novelty
Sacramone has been at the elite level since she made the national squad as its youngest member at 15. "It was kind of a whole new world," she recalls. If she hadn't had a disaster at the 2004 championships, falling off both bars and beam, Sacramone likely could have made the Olympic team for Athens as a specialist, as Annia Hatch did on vault.
For a while after that, she pondered hanging up her leotard. But Sacramone bounced back the next season and tore up the World Cup circuit, beating both the reigning and former Olympic vault champions. "I didn't come back without a gold medal," she says. "I was on a roll."
The roll continued at the global meet in Melbourne, where the Americans had their best showing ever (nine medals, four of them gold) and Sacramone won a gold on the floor (the first by a US competitor in 12 years) and a bronze in vault.
By then, she had already committed to UCLA, but soon reversed direction. "I've always lived on the East Coast," Sacramone says. "I'm a big Boston girl; I love it. California is a great place. It just wasn't the place for me."
So she dialed up Brown in December, wondering whether there still was time to apply. For Carver-Milne, who didn't have anything close to a world-level gymnast on her varsity, it was Christmas come early. "We'd always had our eye on her, but we didn't think it was going to happen," says the coach, who'd "jokingly" recruited Sacramone in the beginning.
Not that Brown hasn't had its share of Olympic-level male rowers and female hockey players. But a bemedaled gymnast was a novelty. "Someone said to me, 'Dude, do you know we have this great gymnast here?' " Sacramone says. "I'm like, 'Really? That's so cool.' "
The question is how all concerned can make it work. "Mihai and I talked, to make sure we're all on the same page," says Carver-Milne. "So that we wouldn't be pulling Alicia one way and another and ripping her apart."
Carver-Milne understands that Sacramone needs the extra sessions with Brestyan to keep her skills and conditioning at world-class levels. And Brestyan understands that academics and the collegiate season take priority. "Everything depends on the pressure she has at the school," he says.
The calendar, at least, is cooperative. The college season runs from January until the end of April. Except for the occasional camp, the national team doesn't get rolling until the summer.
Though Sacramone will miss the American Cup, which conflicts with the Yale meet in March, she won't be marked AWOL. "There is no requirement," says Karolyi, who says that both Nastia Liukin and Chellsie Memmel also will get passes. "When her college season is done, then Alicia can get on a schedule like we want to see it."
That means double sessions at Brestyan's new gym in Burlington, which will be more convenient to her home. "She can practice, she can be with her parents, and she can still be at Brown," says Brestyan. "That will be the best thing. Not like she will be lost in space somewhere."
The biggest challenge for Sacramone will be the workload -- a college courseload, the shuttling back and forth to Brestyan's, a varsity season with a dozen meets, a US team camp this month in Texas, then national and world championships next summer. "Nobody is doing it because it is too hard," says Brestyan. "Alicia is like a pioneer."
Sacramone had a taste of the craziness last fall, when she enrolled at Brown, went to the world championships, then arrived back on campus just before midterms. "The longest 21 days of my life," she says.
In Denmark, Sacramone had to play mother hen to an American team whose two best all-arounders (Liukin and Memmel) both were hurt. "I took it all on me," she says. "Everything was like a mess and we pulled together as a group. 'Come on, guys,' I told them, 'we can do this.' "
What Sacramone brings to her Brown squad, besides her planetary-level skills, is her Rettonesque energy and exuberance, plus the immediate stature that comes from already having been on top of the world. Nobody else at the Pizzitola Sports Center can tell tales of knocking heads with the Chinese, Russians, and Romanians and hearing the anthem played for her. "We love story time around here," Sacramone says, laughing.
Story time works both ways, since nobody on the US team goes to college, much less an Ivy League school. "I feel if I do it, it opens doors for other girls," Sacramone says. "I feel like I'm getting the best of both worlds."
There have been times, particularly in September, when Sacramone felt as if she was in the middle of a spin cycle. "I felt like a chicken with its head chopped off," she says. So she's actually looking forward to this month's camp at Karolyi's ranch in the woods 50 miles north of Houston, where the intense regimen approaches Parris Island's.
"You train, eat, sleep, train, eat, sleep," says Sacramone, who has been through a bunch of sessions by now. "It's a good place to get work done, because there's nothing else to do."
Once she gets back to College Hill, the scrambling will resume -- the classes, the coursework, the meets, the trips to Massachusetts. "In high school, it is easy," says Brestyan, who has coached Sacramone from the start. "If you cannot do it today, do it next week. This time it is more serious."
It is, all agree, an experiment, subject to revision. There is no field manual for what Sacramone is trying to do. "At the end of 2007, we will be able to tell," says Karolyi. "Then we'll sit down with Alicia and analyze and give her some advice."
Maybe Sacramone will decide to take a year off, as Chow did from UCLA. Maybe she'll just take the second semester off. Or maybe she'll keep barreling down the runway. But one way or another, it's Beijing or Bust. "I didn't stick around for another four years," Alicia Sacramone says, "for me to give up right before it happens."
original article found here. x-posted to the_chalk_bin.