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SVETLANA BOGUINSKAIA // Aging Gracefully

Svetlana Boguinskaia is a grande dame among children, a throwback to an earlier Olympic era when "women's" gymnastics meant just that.

"It feels great to compete with these young girls, to be able to still compete with them at this level," the 23-year-old triple gold medalist from Belarus said on the eve of tonight's all-around final, in which she'll compete against girls as much as a decade younger.

It is Boguinskaia's third Olympics, "and it is as much fun (as the Games in Seoul and Barcelona), maybe even more fun because gymnastics is changing. It's always fun to try something new. The rules are changing, the skills are changing and I am still part of it."

And now she competes for the pure pleasure of it. "It's kind of a hobby for me right now. I have my own life. I'm supporting myself (coaching and modeling sportswear), and for the first time I'm doing gymnastics only for myself," she said.

"When I was little, I was doing it for Russia, doing it to hear Russian music (the national anthem as the Soviet flag was raised) when I stood on the podium, doing it to please all the Russian people. There was always a lot of pressure to always be first, first, first. But now I'm just doing it for myself, you know, because I know I want it. I'm not doing it anymore for somebody else.

"I'm not thinking about my scores or the judges now; I just want to compete. Yes, I care how I will do. But it's a sport; it's a game. Whatever happens, happens. If I win a medal, it's great. If I don't, it's still great. I just want to have fun."

When you have won gold medals in consecutive Olympics, when you have left your teenage years behind, you are supposed to leave gymnastics to the next generation of prepubescent girls. That is what Boguinskaia heard after Barcelona.

"Everybody kept telling me, "You're too old. You're too old. It's time to retire.' All these paper people making all these comments," she said of her country's gymnastics bureaucrats who thought they knew what was best for her. "There was a lot of political pressure. It was hard to take. I began thinking, "I am too old. I have to stop.'

"

She had won in 1988 in Seoul for the Soviet Union. She had won in 1992 for the Commonwealth of Independent States, the cobbled-together-but-disintegrating vestige of what had been the USSR. And now she was being shunted aside. Even Bela Karolyi, gymnastics' pre-emiment coach, was saying her time had come and gone.

She went home and announced her retirement.

She was about to turn 20 and she was washed up.

Boguinskaia returned to Minsk to try to find work. There was none.

A gymnastics equipment supplier sponsored a trip to the United States. She performed in gymnastics shows, gave clinics and did some private coaching at a club in Boston. Early in 1993 she turned on the television and found herself watching the World Championships.

"There it was," she said. "Gymnastics. I was looking at all the girls I had competed against. I got so excited I almost started crying. I was thinking, "Maybe I should try and go to the gym. I still have some energy.'

"If I would have said that in Russia, everyone would have said, "Are you crazy? Go, enjoy your life.' But people here were so supportive. I was surprised."

She returned to the gym.

Candy and chocolates

As a child, Boguinskaia competed in figure skating. Her life's direction changed when, as a 7-year-old, she sat in front of the television, mesmerized by the performance of Nadia Comaneci at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

"I was watching with my mom," she said, "and I saw Nadia fall down and get second place, and I said, "Mom, look at this girl. If I was her, I wouldn't fall down. I would be first.' "

She said her mother ignored her. "I said, "Mom, take me to the gym; I want to try this. I want to be an Olympic champion.' And she took me to the gym. And that's how I started."

From the outset she was driven to be the best, to be first, to be faster than anybody. Or be better than anybody. "And if I saw a little girl who was trying to do better than me," Boguinskaia said, "I would always try to hurt her. I would pinch her or bite her, pull her hair or kick her. The next day, she wouldn't come to the gym because she was afraid of me.

"Parents would bring me candy, they would bring me the chocolates, and they would say to me, "Please. Don't do this to our girls.' And I would take the candy. And I would keep on doing it."

The little teenage girls performing in Atlanta _ Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu and the rest of the 4-foot-8, 70-80 pound waifs _ have nothing to fear from the 5-foot-4, 106-pound Boguinskaia.

"This old body'

Boguinskaia's former Soviet coach, Alexander Alexandrov, had moved to Houston and taken a job at Karolyi's gym. Boguinskaia moved to Houston. She called Karolyi. He welcomed her, but he was more involved with Moceanu and Kerri Strug, two of his latest proteges.

When Alexandrov moved to another gym, Boguinskaia went with him, only to return to Karolyi's complex. "I needed Bela," she said. "I wanted to train with Alexander, but I needed real competition every day. At Bela's I had Kim (Zmeskal) and Dominique."

She would watch the tiny Moceanu working on a new routine "and I would think, "Maybe I can do that with this old body.' I'm almost 10 years older than her, but she gave me energy."

At her homeland's request, she returned to Belarus at the start of the year to complete her Olympic training. "Of course, the condition of the gym is very different in Belarus," she said. "It's not very good equipment. But if you can do it on bad equipment, you can do even better on good equipment."

Boguinskaia is not expected to medal. Her routines don't have the degree of difficulty of the favored competitors and her floor exercises, developed by a former Bolshoi Ballet dancer, are more theatrical and less athletic than those of the young girls she's facing.

On Tuesday, in the team competition, she was not the dominating gymnast of old. She admitted to nerves after stumbling in three of the four disciplines.

"I'm not thinking of winning; that would be too much to expect. But I'm 23 and still doing it. Nobody can tell me I'm too old. I am not an old lady. I am a young woman."

Meet the athlete

Born: Feb. 19, 1973, Minsk, Belarus.

Resides: Houston.

Height: 5-4. Weight: 106.

School: Physical Culture and Sport Academy, Minsk.

Personal bests: Three Olympic gold medals (1988 team and vault, 1992 team), nine World Championship medals and eight European Championship medals; the third woman gymnast to appear in three Olympics.

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