Originally created 04/24/04

Hatch won't let knee injury derail Olympic dreams



NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Annia Hatch could have moped around after blowing out her knee only one day before the World Gymnastics Championships began last August.

Certainly no one would have blamed her if she'd felt sorry for herself watching her teammates win the gold medal, the first by an American squad at worlds.

But this is a woman with steely determination. She left her family and life in Cuba behind to follow love, and then came out of a five-year retirement to become one of the top U.S. gymnasts at the ancient age of 25.

"Things happen and you just have to let it be," Hatch said earlier this month at a national team training camp at Bela and Martha Karolyi's ranch about an hour north of Houston.

"Hard moments in your life make you stronger."

Less than four months before the Athens Games begin, Hatch is already back to about 95 percent full strength. She has no pain in her left knee, where she tore a ligament and the meniscus. There are a few skills on floor exercise that she's holding off on because they put added stress on her knee, and she still wears a brace when she's doing vault and floor.

But her balance beam and uneven bars are back to what they once were. And when she was at the training camp, she surprised Martha Karolyi by doing a Yurchenko double - one of the most difficult vaults done by an American woman.

"She was so excited. That made me feel good," Hatch said, giggling. "That made me feel like I can do this."

Hatch was a seven-time national champion in her native Cuba, and her bronze on the vault at the 1996 world championships was that country's first world medal. Though she qualified for the Atlanta Olympics, Cuba didn't send her because it was too expensive.

She retired the following year, and moved on to the next phase of her life. She'd met Alan Hatch, a coach at a gym in Connecticut, at the 1996 worlds, and they'd struck up a friendship. They kept in touch after she went back to Cuba, exchanging letters and phone calls, and soon realized they were in love.

Alan couldn't move to Cuba, so Annia decided to come to the United States. Though she didn't speak any English, she married Alan and moved in 1998. She coached at Alan's gym, but competing again never entered her mind. She started learning English and thought about going to design school.

Then one night in 2001, Alan Hatch came across a story on the Internet about one of Annia's old teammates who was back in the gym after having a baby. That got Hatch's old competitive fire burning again, and the next day, she was in the gym, training.

Within two months, she was back in competitive shape. Six months after that, she won the U.S. Classic, beating national champion and 2000 Olympian Tasha Schwikert.

"I'm doing this for the love of gymnastics," Hatch said. "And for the love of myself."

Though Hatch, who will be 26 in June, is a decade older than many of her U.S. teammates, she more than holds her own with the youngsters. She was in first after the preliminaries at the national championships last June, and is one of the best in the world on vault, one of the Americans' weaker events.

That's what made her injury last year so devastating. The Americans went to worlds favored to win gold, with Hatch a critical member of the squad. But the day before preliminaries, Hatch landed awkwardly while practicing her double-twisting Tsukahara vault, a skill she'd been doing for two years. She completely tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left knee.

Hatch chose to stay with the team, which was reeling after losing three gymnasts. In addition to Hatch, national champion Courtney Kupets tore her Achilles' tendon after prelims while Ashley Postell was knocked out with a bad case of the flu.

"Annia was very supportive," Alan Hatch said. "Everybody was down, but she came there and said, 'You do it. I'm here for you."'

Despite using a patchwork lineup, the American women won gold.

"It was hard, definitely," Hatch said of watching her teammates on the podium. "Winning worlds, you are the best of the best and I felt the same. But not to be able to perform in front of the crowd at that moment, I was disappointed."

Hatch had surgery in September, and doctors told her rehabilitation would take four months - three if she was really lucky. Within two months, though, she was walking on the balance beam and doing small jumps. After four months, she was tumbling on the floor and doing back handsprings on the beam.

She's had very little pain and no setbacks in her rehab. Doctors have cleared her to do all of her skills, but Alan Hatch said he and his wife are being conservative.

The goal isn't simply to be doing all of her tricks.It's to make the Olympic team for her adopted country.

"If she was an athlete who came back for the wrong reasons, if she came back just for the competition, I think it would be tough," Alan Hatch said. "But Annia is doing this for fun. She's really having a good time."