When it comes to elite and formerly elite athletes, Central Oregon has its fair share.
Skiers, snowboarders, runners and cyclists with world-class credentials — even Olympians — are not quite a dime a dozen around here, yet they are not hard to find.
But Olympic-medalist gymnasts?
Well, we are home to at least one.
Mohini Bhardwaj Barry (say it: moh-HEE'-nee buh-HARD'-wahj) won a silver medal with the United States women's gymnastics team at the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens. After coaching in California, she moved to Bend with her husband, Jeff Barry, in 2008 and coached at Cascade All-Star Gymnastics for several years before moving this past spring to Acrovision Sports Center, where she is the girls team director and also heads up the girls recreational program.
I sat down with Barry several days before the conclusion of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and we discussed her Olympic journey and experience, and life after the games.
“It seems like such a different time,” Barry, 33, said of 2004. “But then ... watching the Olympics, there's so many memories that I have that I forgot that I have, of training, and then the same people, the same coaches from different countries, you still see them.”
Barry's road to Athens was long and convoluted. She moved away from her family in Cincinnati while still just a teenager to train for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But she fell agonizingly short, just fractions of a point, of making the squad — which was later dubbed the Magnificent Seven after becoming the first U.S. gymnastics squad to capture the women's team title. She made the world championship team in 1997 and went on to a star-studded collegiate gymnastics career at UCLA.
“After not making that (1996) team, I went into college and never even thought about trying to make an Olympic team ever again after that until some of the 2000 Olympians came onto my UCLA team, and then I kind of thought about it a little bit more,” Barry recalled. “So I thought I was done, and I was devastated, but I realized the reason why I didn't make it is because I just didn't work hard enough. I would go in the gym and kind of work when I felt like it. ... I was a difficult athlete to deal with, and I didn't give it 100 percent and give it my all. So looking back on that experience, being a college athlete and being a little bit older, made me have a lot of regrets. It's a horrible feeling to regret something, which is what made me move on and try to make the team again.”
Barry was 25 when she made her Olympic debut in Athens — ancient for an elite women's gymnast. (For reference, no gymnast on this year's gold-medal-winning U.S. squad was older than 18.) In the buildup to the team selection and the games themselves, Barry crisscrossed the L.A. area to be closer to her coach, and celebrity actress and model Pamela Anderson famously made a sizable monetary donation to help Barry continue training. At that point in her career, Barry was not logging dozens of hours per week in the gym, as younger gymnasts often do. It was more like a couple hours per day. But the rest of her training regimen filled out with yoga classes, weightlifting, cardio workouts and even a lot of mental preparation.
“It's all muscle memory, and you're consistent on your skills,” Barry explained. “But ... can your body, at 25 years old after pounding on it for 15 years straight, can you keep it together and in good enough shape to keep going?
“Gymnastics,” she added, “takes a toll on your body.”
But not only did Barry keep it together physically and make the U.S. Olympic squad, she was named team captain. In Athens, she played a significant role in the team's success, competing in all four events in team qualifying, and on vault, balance beam and floor exercise in team finals. She also took sixth place in the floor exercise event final.
“It was definitely the highlight of my career to end it like that, and also basically the highlight of my life in general because that was a goal that I had set for myself since I was 13 years old and I decided to move ... away from my family, to train,” Barry said of her Olympic experience. “Having a goal that lasted 12 years long, that road to try to accomplish it and actually fulfilling it ... it means everything to me.”
Eight years removed from Athens, Barry is the mother of a young son, Tristen, who will turn 3 this fall. Professionally, she is in charge of the more than 30 girls who make up Acrovision's competitive team, as well as the girls in the gym's recreational program. And she is fulfilling a dream by taking over co-owner of Acrovision, along with Acrovision founder Rich Gustafson.
“Work is not work for me, and that's why I do what I do,” Barry noted. “And then also, a lot of athletes that come off doing gymnastics for a long time, or any sport or even the Olympics, they go through this whole withdrawal period or depression period, almost like a death because you're losing something you did for 20, 25 years. And so for me, stepping into the gym right away and coaching, I never had to go through that. I never feel like I quit doing the sport because the first thing I did is get more involved in the sport.”
These days, she usually keeps her silver medal at her home, though she has brought it out when she has traveled to various events. Barry said that medal will soon be on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in an exhibit about Indian Americans. (Barry's father is Indian, and Barry has the distinction of being one of just a few Indian-American athletes to win an Olympic medal.)
As far as what Barry wants her young pupils to take away from gymnastics, she mentioned empowerment, teamwork, confidence, respect and good sportsmanship.
“They're going to move on,” Barry said. “And it's all about learning things and teaching kids to be better people, and you have to take something away from it to move on in life.”
Just like Barry has since 2004.
“It was great for me to end like that, and I think that's why I was so satisfied being done with the sport, because I knew that I ended at an absolute high point, and I didn't want to look back at my experience and not have the best memory possible,” Barry said of the 2004 Olympics. “My last memory of gymnastics was standing on the podium.”