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Healing Time for Gymnast

Jamie Dantzscher could be bitter. She could be angry or hurt or depressed. She could have discarded her sport in disgust and refused to talk about the 2000 Olympics again.

But she isn’t bitter. She is an Olympian. That’s important. Even better, her father John, who was willing to move his family from Palmdale to San Dimas so Jamie could get the best coaching possible, was at the Arrowhead Pond on Monday night.

Dantzscher, 18, and soon to be a UCLA freshman, performed in Anaheim as part of a post-Olympic tour by Olympic and champion gymnasts from around the world. And John watched. That’s how it has always been, Jamie doing gymnastics and John there to support her. Yet this evening of triumph seemed impossible two months ago.

John and Dantzscher’s 21-year-old sister, Jennifer, were in a horrific traffic accident in Sydney. John was in a coma for a week and in a Sydney hospital for five weeks.

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That came three days after Dantzscher had become a focal point for controversy around the U.S. women’s team and its disappointing fourth-place finish.

She had been vocal about her anger at not being given the chance to compete for the women’s all-around final in Sydney. She trashed team coordinator Bela Karolyi. The words were harsh and shocking. Usually our tiny gymnasts are soft-spoken and reverential about Karolyi.

And then, three days later, a cab in which John and Jennifer were passengers was struck by a bus. Jennifer escaped with some bumps and bruises. John was critically injured. He is home now in San Dimas, recovering from his many injuries, the most serious being a brain bruise. He recently had surgery on his brain, and it will be a year before doctors know how permanent some side effects will be.

Despite everything, Dantzscher says she will never think badly of her Olympic experience.

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“It’s what I worked my entire life for,” she says. “It was my dream from the time I was 5. I worked so hard for it, even when nobody thought I’d make it.”

Through the grueling Olympic trials process--a summer-long parade of competitions and test contests at Karolyi’s Houston-area ranch, Dantzscher kept hearing that Karolyi didn’t like her body type or her attitude.

But she performed so well at U.S. nationals and the Olympic trials that Karolyi, even with the choice of the team at his discretion, could not leave her off.

Karolyi did, however, decide to sit Dantzscher out on two of the apparatus routines during the Olympic team competition. Scores from that competition determined which women qualified for the prestigious all-around finals.

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And it was this decision that caused Dantzscher to publicly berate Karolyi.

Even now, two months later, she says that Karolyi treated her badly. She says he has too much power and that he intimidates some gymnasts. She says that USA Gymnastics officials have gently asked her to tone down her criticism.

“But I don’t regret anything I said,” she says. “I believe there are other girls who feel the same as I do. I hope that eventually the people in power will pay attention to what I said and maybe make some changes.”

All the Dantzschers, John, Joyce and Jamie’s six siblings, had come to Sydney from San Dimas, their first family vacation. Money just wasn’t laying around. John is a produce manager for Ralphs. Joyce is a waitress. Jamie and three of her sisters all took gymnastics lessons.

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But not all of the family came home from Sydney together.

“Jennifer wanted to go to meet Dominique Moceanu and go out,” Jamie says. “My dad didn’t want her to take a cab alone in a strange city so he went with her. The rest of us were in my mom and dad’s hotel room. We were all going to go out when my dad got back. The next thing I knew, my mom was crying and saying we had to get to the hospital.”

There was a time when Jamie thought her dad might die. There was a moment when she felt it was all her fault.

“Those thoughts went through my head,” she says. “What if I hadn’t made the Olympic team? Then my dad wouldn’t be here. Or what if I made the all-around final? Then our whole schedule would have been different. But I know I can’t think that way. He could have been in a car accident at home. It just happened.”

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By the time John and Joyce returned to San Dimas at the end of October, Jamie had left with the tour. Since then, she had seen her dad only once before Monday night. She has been in 28 cities in a month. She talks to her dad on the phone, but it was this one home visit that made things better.

“On the phone,” she says, “he doesn’t sound the same. He doesn’t sound like my dad yet. But in person, at home, it was my dad. I could see my dad coming back.

“Brain injuries are so hard. He gets mad and frustrated. Things are hard for my mom. My dad is still in a lot of pain.”

Jamie says that when her dad found out he would need surgery, “He called me on the phone and said he told the doctors that if he couldn’t go to the Pond and see the tour, he wasn’t going to have the surgery. I said, ‘Dad, you have to have the surgery.’ ”

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He had the surgery. Doctors said he could go to the Pond. Jamie did gymnastics. John watched. Just like always.

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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