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Gymnast has Olympic goals

August 20, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT - Alicia Perez's body forced her to give up her sport temporarily, but not her dream.

When Perez watched the U.S. women's gymnastics team win the silver medal in the team competition at the Olympics on Tuesday she couldn't help but wonder, what if she hadn't gotten sick?

"I think Alicia is a gymnast that you have once in a lifetime and I truly believe she could have been up there with the rest of those girls," said Nica Sutch, Perez's coach and owner of 4 Star Athletic Complex in Williamsport.

Sutch said Perez, now 19, was at age 13 able to perform maneuvers that members of the women's team were doing at the Olympics.

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Perez, of Inwood, W.Va., remembers when she was 11 years old and Sutch pulled her out of practice to ask what her goals were.

"I want to go to the Olympics," Perez replied.

That summer she honed her skills, going from a level 6 to a level 9.

The USA Gymnastics' skill-level designations, which go from level 4 to level 10, are the ones gymnasts should use if they aspire to be Olympians, Sutch said.

Perez increased her practice time to 16 to 17 hours a week, and when school started that increased to 20 hours a week - after school and on weekends.

In 1998, she became the state champion for level 9 by winning the all-around competition and placing first in three of four events. She also had the top all-around score for gymnasts of all ages at that event.

She went on to compete at national events such as the United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs Inc.'s nationals in Florida, she said.

Then Perez started feeling sick.

She was plagued by aches and pains in her joints and her hips hurt. Occasionally, her elbows would lock and she would lose circulation in her hands and feet.

Doctors thought she had rheumatoid arthritis or lupus or was experiencing growing pains, Perez said.

A year passed before Perez went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and was diagnosed with mixed connective tissue disease, an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks itself.

It feels like a lifelong flu, Perez said.

The symptoms include those of Raynaud's phenomenon, a circulatory disorder that causes her to lose the feeling in her hands and feet occasionally when the temperature dips.

Perez started losing hope in her Olympic dream during her last competition in the fall of 1999 because of pain and her disappointment in her performance because she wasn't able to practice enough.

Last year she began coaching at 4 Star.

"It took me a year to even come back in the gym once I quit, but I love it. It doesn't fill the emptiness I have, but it's therapy."

Then, this past June, she attempted a comeback.

The first day back felt amazing and she was able to do most of her gymnastics moves, but her skills weren't polished because she hadn't been practicing, Perez said.

"She was incredible," Sutch said.

Sutch said she couldn't believe Perez came in after five years with no practice and did impressive vaults.

But Perez's illness flared up two weeks later and has kept her from the regular practice needed to compete for a spot on the 2008 Olympic team.

There is no typical peak age for female gymnasts, as proven this year by U.S. Olympians Annia Hatch, 26, and Mohini Bhardwaj, 25, said Luan Peszek, publications director for USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics is the national governing body of gymnastics.

To get to the 2004 Olympics, athletes needed to qualify for international elite status, which is above level 10, Peszek said. The top 12 finishers at the national championship earn the right to go to Olympic trials. Six athletes and three alternates are selected for the Olympic team.

Perez said she believes she has one more chance at her Olympic dream - the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but her window is closing. Her ability - or inability - to practice and her age are two strikes against her. Perez, who takes 30 pills a day, is seeking the right stew of medications that will diminish the pain enough for her to practice.

"I say if I feel good, I want to do it, especially watching the Olympics on TV. It's exciting," Perez said.

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