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COLUMNISTS

Fri, August 13, 2004

Real-life Baywatch rescue


ATHENS -- Most female gymnasts at the Olympics don't have tattoos.

Most haven't spent periods of their lives drinking all night at college parties, smoking cigarettes and putting on weight.

Most don't take jobs in bars or wait on tables at night so they can train all day and make a dent in mounting credit card debts.

Heck, most don't even have credit cards.

At age 25, U.S. gymnast Mohin Bhardwaj is unlike any of her teammates -- or competitors for that matter. And perhaps that's why her biggest fan and backer is someone who can relate to her checkered past -- Pamela Anderson.

Baywatch Babe.

V.I.P. Vixen.

Having read about the financial struggles Bhardwaj faced as she cleaned up her life to make one final attempt at the Olympic team, Anderson contacted the 4-ft. 10-in., 95-lb. gymnast with a $20,000 pledge to help erase debt that threatened to derail her dreams. They've been friends ever since.

"Pam is my mentor," gushed the well-spoken Philadelphia native, uttering words not generally spoken about the buxom blonde.

"She's just a person to me who has goals and dreams and who wants to do things for other people. I think that's very honourable. She's funded this whole thing and I'm excited to have her here to be a part of everything."

The product of a Russian mother and Indian father, Bhardwaj missed qualifying for the Olympic team in 1996 by

.075 points, prompting her to focus on a scholarship at UCLA. In university, her lifestyle saw her stray from the strict regimen generally associated with world class gymnasts. So embarrassed by her performance in '96, she elected not to try for the Sydney squad in 2000, prompting her former coach to suggest she was "a poster child for everything that's good and bad about gymnastics."

Shortly after finishing school with a national title, her decision to take one last stab at a deep American Olympic team required her to work at a pizza parlour and a cocktail lounge to underwrite massive training costs.

Anderson caught wind of Bhardwaj's plight and became her fairy godmother of sorts, adding profile and cash to the cause.

"We have a few things in common like the tattoos and the adventurous stuff," said Bhardwaj when asked if Anderson explained her motives.

"We're both vegetarian and we're both hard-working women who really go for our goals. I can't speak for her crazy but my crazy is probably a lot more tame than her crazy, though."

A sports enthusiast who was a gymnast while growing up in Vancouver, Anderson became Bhardwaj's chief sponsor before Olympic team trials and was on hand to support her for the decisive competition with a sign that read, 'Go Mo.'

"She loves sports and athletics and she was looking to help somebody out," said Bhardwaj, whose maturity and life experiences led to her being anointed captain of the six-member team yesterday.

"I might still be here without her help but I'd sure be in a whole lot of debt. There were definitely times (during the comeback) I was wondering if it was really worth it. But looking back I'm really glad I stuck with it."

When Bhardwaj and her squad start competition tomorrow, her association with Anderson will likely draw newfound attention to her sport from a curious core wondering how her tattoos compare to the ones Pam sports.

"They're all flowers but they're all covered up when I'm wearing my leotards," she laughed. "I'm getting the Olympic rings on my wrist when this is all done."

Courtesy of Anderson.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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