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Olympic hopeful Golden leads by example

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by Marlen Garcia
USA Today

About four years ago gymnast Sean Golden packed his bags, loaded them in his 1996 compact Hyundai, and drove with his mother nearly 1,000 miles from his Orlando-based gym to Houston.

Golden believed he could make the 2008 Olympic team and wanted to train with renowned coach Kevin Mazeika. Mazeika, who runs Houston Gymnastics Academy, coached the silver-medalist USA men’s team in the 2004 Games and will lead this year’s Olympic squad.

Golden wasn’t sure Mazeika wanted him. “He told me up front I wasn’t guaranteed a spot,” Golden, 24, recalls.

The uncertainty had his mother, Patricia, in tears as she left Houston on a plane for the family’s hometown of Camden, N.J. “I left him not knowing what was going to happen next,” she says.

The risk was worth it for Golden, who will compete in the men’s VISA national championships Thursday and Saturday in Houston’s Reliant Park.

The meet is part of the selection process to make the Beijing Games along with next month’s Olympic Trials in Philadelphia, though the six-member team will be finalized in July. Golden (5-5, 150) competes on vault, floor exercise and still rings.

Golden has big dreams. His tight-knit upbringing allowed him to dodge the dangers of Camden, known for its crime rate, but its troubles bother him. He wants to attract more African-Americans to his sport and envisions opening a gym and a community center. “There’s so much talent,” he says. “I’ve seen it in the inner city. I would like to expose that.”

Those are long-term goals. Short term, he wants to become the fifth African-American male gymnast to make the Olympic team, following Ron Galimore (1980), Charles Lakes (1988), Jair Lynch (1992, ’96) and Chainey Umphrey (1996).

Moving to Mazeika’s gym was pivotal. He won over the coach, but making ends meet financially was a lot tougher. He lived with a friend and says he often ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because the ingredients were stocked in the gym’s break room.

He earned a few bucks by coaching younger gymnasts, something he has done since he was 14. “I really saw gymnastics was a burden on my parents,” he says. “I could offset costs.”

Coaching for Mazeika kept Golden afloat, just barely, heading into the 2005 Winter Cup in Las Vegas, a vital qualifier to make the national team. He says he paid for his plane ticket on a credit card and ate off the dollar menu at McDonald’s in the Excalibur Hotel on the city’s famous strip.

The meet was a bust for him, and he considered quitting amid rising debt. Mazeika told him to stick around.

“I said, ‘Sean, this is just the beginning of your career,'” Mazeika says. “He had tremendous raw talent. I knew he had the ability to be a world-level athlete.”

Golden broke through in summer 2005, winning vault and still rings and finishing third in floor exercise at the VISA championships. He made the national team, which allowed his training to be subsidized by the team and sponsors.

Last year he had the team’s highest vault score at the world championships in Germany, helping the U.S. finish fourth.

“Oh, man, he’s improved so much,” Mazeika says.

Nevertheless, there is a tight race among about 15 gymnasts to make the Olympic team. About the only sure bet is defending Olympic all-around champ Paul Hamm.

Golden has an apartment with fellow hopefuls Sean Townsend, a 2000 Olympian, and Raj Bhavsar, a 2004 alternate. Golden shares some of their exploits in video clips on his website,

He’s always on the go even as a child. His mother once asked a doctor how to control her energetic son. He offered two suggestions: hyperactivity medication or a sport. The latter worked perfectly.

Now Golden is a role model, which he doesn’t take lightly. He looks up to Tiger Woods for his charitable work and talks about opening gateways in gymnastics for disadvantaged children the way Woods has in golf.

Golden will never have Woods’ bankroll, but he’s already doing his part.

Since fall 2006, Golden has been in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He spends many Sundays with 13-year-old Makis Palmer, whose family relocated from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. Whether they’re fishing or working on homework, Golden wants his optimism to resonate with the teen.

“I always believe there’s opportunities,” Golden says. “I just have to go after it.”


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