Katie Heenan has holes in her hands.
“I don’t even know what it’s from,” says the 15-year-old gymnast of the staph infection she has been battling since July. “It starts under the skin, like under the callous, and then eventually it cracks and becomes like a hole.”
She talks about the injury as casually as she would talk about the weather. But then, no gymnast wins a medal at the World Championships without a little pain.
Heenan, from Burke, Va., recently returned from Ghent, Belgium, where she scored a personal best 9.212 on the uneven bars to capture an unexpected bronze medal. She is the first U.S. gymnast to win an individual medal at the World Championships since 1996.
Despite her achievement, there won’t be any bragging.
“It was great just to be there in the first place,” she says of qualifying for the finals on bars. “No matter how you did, you were at least in the top eight.”
Her positive attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed at Capital Gymnastics in Burke, where Heenan has trained for five years.
“She is a kid that everybody likes, that everybody thinks is the sweetest person in the world,” says Barry Neff, owner of the gym. “Especially kids today, when they get good, they tend to have that Deion Sanders-type attitude, and she is not [like that].”
Capital Gymnastics, which Neff has owned for 12 years, isn’t easy to find. It’s tucked away off Roberts Parkway in Burke amid massive construction. There is no street sign. A bumpy, winding road takes you to the gym, which looks like a warehouse and sits next to a recycling center. The parking lot is filled with trucks, trailers and potholes.
Inside the gym, the sound of the recycling trucks disappears. A girl smiles to a friend, then instantly turns stone cold as she sprints down a mat and hurls herself into the air and upside down. Another girl performs acrobatics on the balance beam and lands a sequence perfectly. But only to the untrained eye.
“No, no, I don’t like,” yells beam coach Marina Gerasimova with a Russian accent.
This is where Heenan trains almost every day. She works with a team of four coaches, led by coach Tatiana Perskaia, who previously coached Oksana Omelianchik to an all-around gold medal for the Soviet Union at the 1985 World Championships. And Perskaia sees potential in Heenan.
“She’s a very hard worker, and it paid off for her,” says Perskaia of Heenan’s bronze medal.
With the Athens Olympics three years away, Heenan is on the right track toward earning a coveted spot on the U.S. team. But Perskaia isn’t ready to put the Olympics on the list of goals just yet.
“I don’t go that far,” she says. “I’m not thinking about the Olympics. There are still three U.S. Championships before then.”
Heenan was too young and still at the junior level for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Amateur gymnastics requires athletes to be turning 16 or older during the year of competition at the senior level. Heenan will turn 16 on Nov. 26, so this year has been her first of eligibility.
“I think it makes the life of the sport longer for the individual gymnast,” Heenan says of the controversial age limit, which was not in place until after the 1996 Olympic Games. “If somebody goes to the Olympics when they’re 13, I think it burns them out and they can’t stay in the sport as long as they are now.”
Heenan will continue to train at the senior level with Perskaia and her three other coaches: Gerasimova on balance beam, Victor Vetroy on bars and Galina Meliakina on floor exercise.
Capital Gymnastics is glad to have her back. When she returned from Belgium, Heenan was greeted at the airport by a crowd of family and friends carrying signs and flowers. And the reception at the gym was just as warm.
“Everyone stopped workout and were all around the door, and started clapping when I walked in. It was a great welcome home.” she says.
According to Neff, Heenan deserves that and more. He complains about the lack of media coverage Katie has received for her performance.
“They won’t do anything on her,” he says. “They told me, ‘Well, we’ve got volleyball finals.’ This kid just went to the World Championships and won a medal for the United States. It’s just not fair to her.”
ESPN will broadcast portions of the World Championships, but not until Nov. 23 and 25, almost three weeks after the competition.
Heenan won’t have to cut class to watch her performance on TV. She began a home-schooling program in February that allows her to complete course work and take tests sent to her by a correspondence school. She then mails the work back. Her education takes less time this way, which means more time to focus on her gymnastics.
“My mom sometimes has to get on me to make me do it, but I pretty much teach myself,” says Heenan, who hopes to attend UCLA. “I think it helped me, because I started home school and then all this happened this year. … It’s less stress, and with less stress my body can stay healthier.”
Heenan’s parents, John and Lisa, gave her gymnastics career its start when they enrolled their 4-year-old daughter in a class when the family lived in Knoxville, Tenn.
“My parents put me in the sport because I was …” she pauses and laughs. “Crazy. Jumping out of moving strollers, and always moving.”
But Heenan says her uncle, Robert, claims to have gotten her started earlier. When she was 3, he would lay her on the coffee table and spin her around. It has become a joke between the two.
“I owe it all to my Uncle Robert,” she says with a laugh.
Heenan says her favorite gymnast is Romanian Andrea Raducan, who was stripped of her all-around gold at the 2000 Olympics after she took cold medicine that contained an illegal substance for athletes.
“I met her at World Championships. Not just her, but all the Romanian gymnasts, are the sweetest girls. … The Russians are always so serious. The Romanians always seem to have a smile on their face.”
It sounds like she’s describing herself, because Heenan doesn’t stop smiling, even when she talks about the staph infection. She turns over her hands to reveal blistered palms, a problem she hopes to address with a specialist now that the competition is over and she has more time.
“It just won’t go away,” she says.
The gymnastics world hopes she won’t either.