In Sanskrit, Mohini means ‘someone who mesmerises.’ True to her name, Mohini Bhardwaj, an American of Indian origin, mesmerised her rivals and fans with her heroic exploits in the gymnastic arena.
Mohini Bhardwaj is one of the greatest gymnasts of Indian origin, if not the greatest. A silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, backed by a bronze medal at the World Championships, is a top draw.
More importantly, Mohini’s saga of hard work and determination shows the champion that she is. One of the biggest struggles of her life came just before she won the silver medal in the Athens Olympics, which will be discussed at length in the latter part of this article. It must be mentioned here that her early life was marred by small incidents that almost cost her career.
In her young days, Mohini took to gymnastics at the tender age of 4. It was her father, Anil, who prompted her to take up the sport. She was living in Cinncinati at that point in time and attending the Seven Hills School. As she showed a lot of promise early on, her parents decided to pack her off to Brown Gymnastics, one of the most reputed gymnastic institutions in the country. As her coach, Alexander Alexanderov, moved to Houston, Mohini had to move along to the new city in Texas.
As a 16-year-old all by herself in a new city, Mohini could not handle the newfound freedom and started a wayward lifestyle—smoking and drinking—as she lost her zeal and love for the sport. It was here that her father, Anil, played a pivotal role in ensuring that she not only got back on track but emerged as a stronger contender.
Soon, Mohini was making her presence felt at the national level as one of the most promising gymnasts. She was among the top 10 ranked athletes in the US Olympic trials, but she failed to make the cut for the Atlanta Olympics by a hairline margin of 0.075. “I was disappointed, obviously, but then my coach told me to train harder and see the results. His words were like Gospel to me, and I was back to training at my 200 percent,” said Mohini.
Thereafter, Mohini, under the tutelage of renowned coach Valorie Field, came out with some of the best performances of her life when she outshone everyone and won a record 23 titles at the college level. Representing the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Mohini won a record 11 titles. “There is no doubt that my stint at UCLA is something that I will always cherish,” said Mohini.
Fresh from her exploits at the college level, Mohini then threw herself into the mean and tough world of professional gymnastics. She soon made her mark and was selected for the US team for the 2001 World Championships in Ghent. She played a pivotal role in the US women’s team winning the bronze medal in the team championships.
“The bronze at the 2001 World Championships was without a doubt one of the highpoints of my career. I was just 23 years old at that point in time and was very happy with my exploits. I think what that bronze medal did was instill in me a sense of self-belief that I could perform at the highest level. The bronze medal at the Worlds was like a shot in my arm,” opined Mohini.
Mohini also had words of praise for her parents. “My parents were like the Rock of Gibraltar. They stood solidly behind me and backed me to the hilt. At no point in time did they even question my decision to take gymnastics full-time,” she said.
There is an adage in English: The darkest hour is before dawn. In real-life parlance, it signifies that before a highpoint in someone’s life, there is an extreme lowpoint. In Mohini’s case, a similar thing happened before her greatest moment of triumph.
Mohini had been targeting a podium finish at the 2004 Athens Olympics. But then, in preparation for the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, her performances were quite disappointing. She failed to make the cut for the US team as she could only manage a 12th place in the trials. Luck was on her side when a leading gymnast, Ashley Postell, injured herself, and she took her place.
However, Mohini’s tribulation didn’t end here, as he ran short of cash, and without a sponsor, her preparation almost reached a dead end. She tried her hands at odd jobs—working as a waitress, pizza delivery—just about anything that could help her sustain her Olympic dreams. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to work, and she was on the verge of pulling out of the Olympics when she received help from a Godsend quarter.
It so happened that Baywatch star Pamela Anderson came to know about Mohini’s travails and decided to fund her Olympic dream. She donated $20,000, which was good enough to ensure Mohini’s Olympic participation. “I cannot thank God and Pamella enough for what they did to me. But for that critical help from Pamella, the Olympics would have been history for me,” she said.
Thereafter, Mohini scripted history when she won a silver medal in the team Championships for the US. This epoch-making Olympic silver medal catapulted her as the greatest athlete of Indian origin across the world.
When asked whether she thought about coming to India and starting a gymnastics centre, Mohini said that right now she had no such plans. ‘But maybe, who knows? Sometime in the future, I might be doing that,” she said.