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Her Party Life Over, She Returned to Bars

Mohini Bhardwaj has a tattoo. She has many pierced body parts. She owns up to a youth spent drinking too much, smoking too many cigarettes, hosting and attending too many parties, missing too many curfews.

She has cut class--in high school and college--overslept, understudied. She has abused her athletic talent and then found religion--in the form of discipline, a team and a coach who gave her boundaries and limits.

Bhardwaj, 22, has finished her athletic eligibility as a UCLA gymnast and is now aiming to qualify for the U.S. national team. She might be considered old, but Bhardwaj is not much interested in what anybody else might consider is normal. She never has.

College athletics has provided Bhardwaj with her compass for life. When high-minded men and women gather to discuss what is wrong with college sports, emerging with something called a Knight Commission report that says, in effect, that schools need to dole out athletic scholarships only to those who absolutely, positively will graduate in four years, then some bright, talented, once-misguided and now sincerely educated women and men would get left behind.

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Bhardwaj is one of those women.

Her coaches say that Bhardwaj has so much natural, physical talent that she should have been an Olympian once or twice by now. UCLA Coach Valerie Kondos Field calls Bhardwaj “a poster child for everything that’s good and bad about gymnastics.”

Bhardwaj’s father, Kaushal, is from India and is a physician in Cincinnati. Her mother, Indu, is a Russian from New York who converted to Hindu and who teaches yoga. It was expected that Bhardwaj would achieve something special and when she was 5 and showed a love of and talent for gymnastics, Indu was not surprised.

Bhardwaj’s first coach told Indu that her daughter was so talented that she needed advanced training. When she was 13, Bhardwaj found Rita Brown, a well-respected coach in Florida, who wanted to coach her. Bhardwaj’s will was strong enough that she convinced her parents to let her move from her home in Cincinnati to Orlando, where she lived with the family of another gymnast.

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Soon enough, a lonely Bhardwaj convinced her mother to join her. As happens so often in these sports where women excel young, a family was separated.

Kaushal kept working in Cincinnati. Bhardwaj’s mother and younger brother, Arun, lived in an Orlando apartment for three years.

When she was 16, her coach moved to Houston and opened a big, fancy, new gymnastics school. Bhardwaj, a star pupil, moved to Houston too. Indu was tired of living apart from her husband. Indu and Arun went home to Cincinnati after Bhardwaj convinced her parents she could handle living on her own in an apartment in Houston.

“Maybe I wasn’t ready to handle things as well as I thought I could,” Bhardwaj says. “I was a teenager with my own apartment, you know? That can make you pretty popular. I could have parties and people could crash on my floor. I could get away with stuff, and I did.”

There were stories about Bhardwaj--that she was a gang member. She never belonged to a gang, Bhardwaj says, but she admits that there were long-lasting and frequent parties. There was drinking, there was smoking cigarettes, lots of them.

Bhardwaj did what many teens left on their own would do. She abused her freedom. She knew her gymnastics was suffering, but by then she had learned a lesson many talented athletes learn--that her athletic talent gave her the ability to manipulate older people, to escape consequences. She learned how to keep her parents from finding out the worst of her activities. And she also learned there were many people willing to look the other way.

“I was a pretty important person at my coach’s new gym,” she says. “I think I got away with a lot of stuff, you know, being out of shape, maybe being late for practice, and other things, because they didn’t want me to leave the school.”

By the time she was a senior in a Houston high school, Bhardwaj had such a bad reputation that most college coaches were afraid to recruit her, even though Bhardwaj had been a six-year national team member and had finished third at the U.S. Championships.

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“I heard all these stories about Mohini,” Kondos Field says. “Some were pretty bad. The thing I found out immediately about Mohini, though, was that she was honest.

“When I confronted her about all the stories, she owned up to everything.”

It took some special persuasion from Kondos Field to the UCLA admissions department before Bhardwaj was accepted as a Bruin.

But she did not immediately change her partying, smoking, irresponsible ways.

Bhardwaj gained weight, nearly 10 pounds, which is a huge amount for a 4-foot-10 woman. She stayed out all night. Kondos Field would pass a car and see Bhardwaj hanging out the window, smoking. Bhardwaj’s teammates would implore her to clean up her act.

“They’d tell me everything I did reflected on the team,” Bhardwaj says, “and I’d listen, but I wouldn’t change.”

It was a breech of honesty that almost got Bhardwaj kicked out of school and that smacked her hard in the face, a slap she had never before received.

Kondos Field scheduled a practice on the day before Christmas break during Bhardwaj’s freshman year. Bhardwaj had been to a late party the night before. “I was in no shape to get to the gym,” Bhardwaj says. “I was too hung over. So I told Coach Val that my flight home to Cincinnati left in the afternoon and I couldn’t go to practice.

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“Coach Val found out the truth and called me at home over Christmas. She told me that it was now or never. She said I had to come back to school in shape and that I had to live by the rules. She said that if I ever lied again, I was gone.”

For the first time in her athletic life, Bhardwaj understood there would be negative consequences to her behavior.

“I think you’ll find with most kids, from the most talented to the least, that they want you to set limits,” Kondos Field says. “Mohini wanted limits and discipline. She wanted me to get mad and tell her ‘No.’ ”

There was no more trouble.

Bhardwaj became UCLA’s first four-time first-team All-American on bars. This year she clinched UCLA’s second consecutive NCAA title by scoring a near-perfect 9.9 on the balance beam. She has the UCLA record for most perfect scores of 10.0 (eight) and was the first UCLA gymnast in 11 years to be named a Honda Award winner for her athletic and academic achievements.

Bhardwaj has a couple more quarters of work before she gets her degree. Then she plans to go to law school.

There is also some unfinished gymnastics business. She never went to the Olympic trials in the proper frame of mind or body. In 1996, Bhardwaj finished 10th at the trials. Four years later, she didn’t even bother to go.

Things are different now. Bhardwaj is sure of herself and her talent. She is sure of her ability to do the training necessary to be a world-class gymnast. In a year of transition, when most of the 2000 Olympians have retired or taken the season off, Bhardwaj is hoping to earn a spot at U.S. Nationals and then on the U.S. world championship team.

In three more years, there is no reason why she couldn’t be a 25-year-old, first-time Olympian, Kondos Field said.

“Mo would be perfect to break new barriers and be a mid-20s contender,” she says. “You know, it’s easy to find role models who have always been the perfect student and the perfect team member.

“But, Mo, I think she has so much to teach. She has made mistakes, absolutely, some bad ones. But she has learned from everything. Mo has always had an ability to be honest with herself. She has taken responsibility for her actions. You look into her face now, into her eyes, and you see it. This is a mature woman who has grown up with us. Mohini will forever have a little place in my heart.”

Says Bhardwaj: “I hope that kids can look at me and see someone who screwed up and screwed up and then grew up. I didn’t give up on myself and I was so lucky to have some people who wouldn’t give up on me.”

Not everybody appreciates what they’ve been given. Bhardwaj has learned to say “I’m sorry,” “Thank you,” and, most important, “No party for me tonight.”

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Diane Pucin can be reached at: diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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