|Feb 21||Bridget Sloan Comes Into Her Own|
Bridget Sloan no longer is the youngest girl on the team.
The United States gymnast and perpetual "youngest girl on the team" didn't even have her learner's permit when she was receiving the team silver medal last summer at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
A lot has changed for Sloan since then.
"When she first started doing well, people would ask her to talk to their team and she would have very few words," Sloan's longtime coach Marvin Sharp said.
Now Sloan enjoys public speaking.
"I don't have a problem with getting up in front of people," Sloan said confidently.
Sloan is still only a sophomore at Tri-West High School outside Indianapolis, but the 16-year-old has a new air of confidence after a life-changing past two years. That updated attitude was on display in January at her first USA Gymnastics camp since the 2008 Games.
"She was always the littlest, youngest kid at the training camps," Sharp said. "But now she is one of the senior athletes and she has taken over that role very well...I think she is a pretty good representative of what they want their Olympians to be."
Life for Sloan today includes going to high school and working out 25 hours per week to prepare for her next meet, the Tyson American Cup on Feb. 21 in Chicago-one of the most prestigious international invitational meets.
But on her off time, Sloan accepts opportunities to speak at schools, gyms and hospitals, and also was recognized on the Oprah Winfrey Show, at an Indianapolis Colts game and at the White House.
A noticeable difference has surfaced in Sloan's confidence and maturity as she climbs through the senior ranks, but nothing demonstrated her poise like her Olympic debut.
Minutes before Team USA took the floor at the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing for the team preliminary rounds, Sloan's teammate and current training partner, Samantha Peszek, heard a pop in her ankle.
The loss of Peszek, combined with a previous injury to teammate Chellsie Memmel, meant Team USA would be able to field only four gymnasts per event with all four scores counting. Normally each team has five gymnasts per event with only the top four scores counting.
"So I knew that my score was going to count whether it was good or bad," Sloan said.
The change also meant that Sloan would move up to compete first in the floor exercise.
"I was concerned how she was going to handle the pressure," Sharp said. "It was the Olympic Games, the lights. It was prelims and we had to stay in the top two so we could compete [alongside China in the team finals]. Even with four girls we had to keep Romania and Russia out of that."
After three events, Team USA just needed a strong finish on the balance beam-always a tough apparatus to finish on-and Sloan competed first.
"She went up first on beam and had a beautiful routine and really looked like a professional out there," Sharp said. "That was my proudest moment of the Games, when she showed she was serious and you could count on her and she could keep her cool."
Competing in an Olympic Games was far from Sloan's mind when she began gymnastics as an energetic 4-year-old. It was even further from her mom's.
"[My mom] thought every child would be able to flip themselves over at the age of 3 and climb trees at the age of 2," Sloan said. "[She] just thought that wasn't a big deal, but my coach told her it was a big deal because not a lot of kids can do that at 4."
Sharp already could tell that Sloan was talented and flexible, and from early on he placed her in a group with older kids.
"She was full of energy always, a little hyper as a young child," Sharp said. "And I always said it is so much easier to direct energy than create it. So usually the kids we picked for those groups were children who had a little more energy."
Sloan continued to thrive in the gym, and Sharp continued to try to direct her energy.
"We had a talk when she was a little older about just walking to get a drink of water because she would do 15 cartwheels as she did and be tired by the time she got back," Sharp said.
Sloan began competing when she was 7 years old and started considering the elite ranks when she was 10.
Sharp said it wasn't until 2007, when Sloan took the step from the junior to senior rank, that she started to show signs of the confident and outgoing person she is today.
"She started to be a little more aware about what she was doing in the gym and she started to look a little more confident in the gym," Sharp said. "That really stepped it up for her."
In 2007, Sloan competed in the National Championships, the Good Luck Beijing Olympic test event and was a reserve on the gold medal team at the World Championships, among others. Suddenly the Games started to become a real possibility.
"I remember there was a TV interview when she was 10 years old and all they talked about was the Olympics," Sharp said. "I'm not sure that was even on her mind but now...she could see she has a shot at this...."
Sloan suffered a setback when she tore her meniscus during a meet in Italy in March 2008, but she didn't let that deter her.
"Coming back from my injury helped me a lot because I knew if a torn meniscus couldn't stop me, then I knew I could do anything," Sloan said.
She returned from Italy on a Sunday, went to the doctor Monday and had the surgery Tuesday. By June, Sloan was competing on the uneven bars and balance beam at the National Championships, and a few weeks later she added the floor exercise at the Olympic Trials.
Sloan eventually made the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.
"I would say that she really stepped up and took on what she needed to do," Sharp said. "Before we left to go to China, we had talked about how...we needed to take girls that could handle changes. Something did come up, and she handled it really well."
Now Sloan takes things one year at a time and won't even consider London in 2012 until two years before the Games.
"The Olympics changes everybody," Sloan said. "But my parents have kept me well rounded."
The formerly shy gymnast is now a local hero sought after for her motivational speeches and her autograph.
But she's still the same old Bridget.
"The idea that she comes back and has some local fame-sometimes that changes people's attitude," Sharp said. "But other than some little media things here and there it's just back to work and back to being a normal person."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.