Roethlisberger leads U.S. team

by Aaron Kirscht

In the movie “The Natural,” a young Roy Hobbs carves a bat from the heart of a tree struck by lightning. He goes on to use that bat — dubbed Wonder Boy — in a short, sweet baseball career.
Another natural, former University gymnast John Roethlisberger, might have been found swinging from that same tree as a kid. And now, Minnesota’s own wonder boy is looking to highlight a long, successful career with an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta.
After serving as an alternate at the Barcelona games four years ago, Roethlisberger is back — this time on top. The most dominant U.S. male gymnast of the ’90s, Roethlisberger is a four-time national champion and three-time NCAA all-around champ.
But an Olympic medal would top it all. And with a strong showing in the team compulsories Saturday, Roethlisberger put himself and the rest of the U.S. team in position to do just that.
With his scores in the compulsories, Roethlisberger stood in third place, and the U.S. team came in a remarkable fifth.
For fans of University gymnastics, John’s success is exciting, but hardly surprising. After all, it’s in his blood.
John’s father, Gophers men’s gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger, starred for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in the 1968 Mexico City games. His sister Marie was also a 1984 Olympian in gymnastics.
The performance of the rest of the U.S. team, however, is unexpected. A U.S. men’s gymnastics team last took home a medal from a fully attended Olympics in 1932.
The U.S. men soared to eight medals and the all-around title in the 1984, but the Los Angeles games were boycotted by the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries, which are international gymnastics powerhouses.
In last year’s world championships, the United States held third place after the compulsories but faltered in the optionals and finished ninth. John finished a disappointing 30th in the individual all-around competition.
Barring a similar collapse this year, the United States has another good shot at a top-three finish. Still, Fred Roethlisberger warns there’s more to the games than taking home some hardware.
“In 1992, (the United States) finished seventh, and we were treated like we failed,” he said. “We didn’t feel that way, and we got a little tired of hearing that.”
But more than 31,000 fans in attendance at the Georgia Dome this the weekend sounded anything but disappointed. At one point, the United States held second place, slightly behind Belarus, and the stadium rocked.
Before the compulsories were finished, Russia, China and Ukraine leapfrogged the Belarussians and the upstart Americans. Those teams and Bulgaria — which finished sixth — will compete for the team title tonight.
In Wednesday’s individual all-around competition, Roethlisberger can look forward to taking on Belarus’ Vitaly Scherbo, who was the most decorated athlete of the Barcelona games. Scherbo won six gold medals in 1992 and is a favorite to win a few more in Atlanta.
Scherbo, who now resides in the United States, considered retiring from the sport after his wife, Irina, was seriously injured in an auto accident near State College, Pa. But her successful recovery inspired him to keep going.
After the compulsories, Scherbo was in an unfamiliar position — second. Russian newcomer Alexei Nemov finished first. Li Xiaoshuang of China, the reigning world champion, slipped on the rings and came in a shocking 29th. Compulsory scores, however, will not carry over to the individual competition.
Nevertheless, Fred Roethlisberger doesn’t expect Scherbo to dominate the way he did four years ago. “I think (the medals) will be spread around more this time,” he said. “Scherbo’s more than a year younger than John, but he’s barely making it due to injury problems.”
Meanwhile, Fred’s hopes for his son are cautiously high, saying John’s best chance is for a team medal. But that was before John’s smooth performance Saturday.
In that competition, John’s marks on the pommel horse, rings and horizontal bar were among the highest of the day. He broke a string of low scores for the U.S. men with a 9.5 on the horizontal bar, and followed with a 9.6 and 9.7 on the rings and horse, respectively.
Historically, Roethlisberger’s best scores have come on the floor exercise, rings and horizontal bar. At last year’s World Championships, John finished 10th, eighth and ninth, respectively, in those events.
“He was right in there, but he’s better this year,” Fred said. “I think he’ll move up, but how far is hard to say.”
As John Roethlisberger nears the end of his career, his chance for Olympic glory is finally within reach. “John looks better than he’s ever looked in his life,” Fred said. “He’s trained really hard, and he’s healthy. I think he’ll be at his absolute peak.”
And as Roethlisberger goes, so does the U.S. team.