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Thursday, April 15, 2004



[ GYMNASTICS ]



art
CRAIG KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jason Gatson, a member of the USA men's gymnastics senior national team, first earned a spot on the World Championships team in 1997, at age 17.



Gatson pushes
past his limits

The gymnast has overcome
adversity to return to
the World Championships


If gymnasts had a perform-by date, Jason Gatson's should have expired a long time ago.



PACIFIC ALLIANCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

GYMNASTICS COMPETITION

When: Today, senior men's artistic team and all-around 7 p.m.; Friday, senior women's artistic team and all-around 7p.m.; Saturday, men's and women's event finals, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
Tickets: $5-$15 individual; $30-$75 all-session



At 17, Gatson was the youngest gymnast in USA gymnastics history to earn a spot on the World Championships team in 1997. His second World Championship wouldn't come for another six years.

In between, Gatson dealt with injuries, underachievement and enough inner demons to drive most away from a demanding sport in which a wobble or a misstep can be the unraveling of a career.

His dreams always drove him and even during the lowest points of his career -- the injuries and testing positive for marijuana in 2002 -- Gatson never considered giving it up.

"It's my love. It's my passion for the sport," said Gatson, who began participating when he was 5, after his pediatrician suggested it to his mom. "I set a lot of goals for myself earlier in life and I got hurt. It was another bump in the road. It's another obstacle you have to get over.

"I was down and out for three years, but all the work and the rehab I did got me where I am now."

Where he is now is what many expected of him when he arrived at the Olympic Training Center at 16. He left his family to move to Colorado after eclipsing the highest level of gymnastics available in Arizona.

What followed was a glimpse of his potential. Gatson finished third in the all-around at the U.S. Championships in 1997 and took home the first of three national titles in the floor exercise.

In Gatson's first World Championships in 1997 in Lausanne, Switzerland, he finished 22nd in the all-around competition and successfully made his own place in the code of gymnastics. The Gatson is a swinging element done on the parallel bars. The skill involves completing a full turn with one arm on the bar and finishing perpendicular to the ground.

"It's pretty cool," the 22-year-old Gatson said. "At the time I got my first skill named after me I had to go to the World Championships and compete it successfully. Competing at the World Championships when I was 17 was an honor and when I actually submitted the skill and I made it on team finals, it was awesome. Just having your name on the book, it's in the book forever."

Forever seemed to be the time between his first and second World Championships. No one thought it would take six years.

"He's always been a talented guy, a talented gymnast," U.S. Olympic training center coach Vitaly Marinitch said. "He's been great to work with. He's a quick learner. He feels gymnastics really well. No matter what position he is in the flip, he knows where the ground is. We call it air sense. He's very good with that.

"He's strong physically. He's built well for gymnastics. He's unusually big muscle-wise for gymnastics. He stands out from the crowd."

GATSON'S KNEE has been his biggest nemesis. The first time he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament was at the 1999 nationals when he landed on a dismount. He missed the Sydney Olympics a year later and on the recovery road in 2001 his body betrayed him again. Gatson tore his ACL again at nationals and had to have reconstructive surgery.

Gatson has scars 6 and 7 inches long on his leg and a 4-inch reminder on top of his knee. He also has two holes from arthroscopic surgery. The injuries had a crippling effect on his spirit too.

"That whole three years I was down and out. The timing of the injuries was brutal," Gatson said. "It devastated me and it took me a long time to recover from that. Just throughout my whole career that was the biggest down point 'cause I was on my way up."

Gatson did benefit from his knee troubles. He is stronger and perhaps a bit more well-rounded. His strongest events before were the floor exercise and the vault, but without the use of his legs, his upper body had to get stronger. Marinitch has seen Gatson become steadily better in the other four events.

"You could imagine when he got injured, it's taken his two best events out of him," Marinitch said. "That's huge in gymnastics. When you have your best events taken away from you, you don't have anything left. So he had to get better in the other four events to be competitive. He's done that within those three years of rehab."

REHAB AND INJURIES weren't the only deterrents to his career. He tested positive for marijuana in early 2002 and was put on probation for three months.

"It was a mistake. I got sidetracked a little bit," Gatson said. "I apologized to everybody. Elite athletes don't really need to be doing stuff like that. Being around it is not good. It's not good for the kids who look up to you."

A more difficult battle followed probation, as Gatson questioned his future in gymnastics. Being out of competitions and battling injuries was emotionally draining. He left the training center in the summer of 2002 disenchanted.

"I had to do some soul searching and kind of re-evaluate everything all over again," Gatson said. "I can only be at home for a week before I start missing it. I start feeling out of shape and I have to get back to the gym. It was a good three weeks."

It was enough to renew him for the unfinished business in his career.

"He's just always had a goal of going to the Olympics," his mom, Debbie, said. "That's his motivation. He's not going to be happy until he at least goes. The dream would be to win a medal."

That's not a dream that only belonged to him. On her death bed, Gatson's grandmother told his parents that she dreamt he would be on a podium with a medal around his neck one day.

Gatson isn't sure if he believes in premonitions but "who's going to question it? She saw it," he said. "She was on her death bed. It was kind of neat that she was able to see it before she passed away."

Gatson got one of his dreams to become reality last summer.

"The highlight for my whole career was last year's World Championships. Just being down and out, I had to kick my butt into gear all of last year," said Gatson, who finished eighth in the all-around, seventh on the still rings and helped the U.S. team win a silver medal. "To go through the whole year and place second at the nationals and to be able to compete in Anaheim ... it's like a dream. In a sport like this, you want to be able to compete at a Worlds or an Olympics in the United States."



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