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Bend Olympic gymnast speaks on breaking cultural barriers, Simone Biles saga

(Update: Adding video, comments in live interview)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- As the captain of the U.S. women's gymnastics team in 2004, Mohini Bhardwaj-Barry helped propel the ladies to a silver medal at the summer games in Athens. At the time, she did not know how rare that accomplishment was for someone like her, and the future Bend resident never predicted what would come next.

With that silver medal, Bhardwaj-Barry became the first Indian-American gymnast and woman, and second Indian-American ever, to medal at the Olympics. The first was Alexi Grewal, who won a gold medal in cycling at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

"I actually had no idea that I was the first Indian-American gymnast to get a medal," Bhardwaj-Barry told NewsChannel 21. "It was kind of a surprise to me. It's not something I sat out to necessarily accomplish. I think it just came with my hard work, and it just happened to fall that way."

That medal came during a turning point for Indian-American culture.

"Most of the time, Indians are very focused on education," Bhardwaj-Barry said. "Around 2004, there was a kind of like a breakout going on, with Indian actresses, Indian show cooks, and then also different athletic sports."

Soon after, officials at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. saw this shift, and wanted to showcase it.

They created a display dedicated to the very people Bhardwaj-Barry was talking about, including herself.

From 2005 to 2008, her Olympic credential, and that silver medal, stayed at the museum, serving as a reminder for the barriers she, and others, broke through.

"I actually had the choreographer from UCLA, who is Indian, tell me that I was her inspiration,” Bhardwaj-Barry said. “It's cool to be able to inspire other people and make them feel welcome, like they can do different things that aren't necessarily like the cultural norm."

Bhardwaj-Barry says she hopes her story motivates not just Indian-Americans, but young athletes everywhere.

That's why she sometimes brings her medal to OOA Gymnastics, the gym she owns in Bend.

“I mean, what's the fun of having it when it just sits in your house?” Bhardwaj-Barry said. “I want people to be able to touch it, to see it, and kind of feel the experience that I had.”

It's an experience she still looks back on with nothing but smiles.

“All this is 25 years of hard work,” Bhardwaj-Barry said, looking down at her Olympic memorabilia.

With fellow American gymnast Simone Biles announcing her return to action early Monday morning, NewsChannel 21 asked Bhardwaj-Barry how she reacted to the initial news of Biles bowing out of several events last week.

"So much shock, because as an athlete, my coach would never let me do something like that," Bhardwaj-Barry said. "At the same time, the culture of gymanstics is very much changing. It was shock, awe, but then very much respect. Who really has the guts to step out of winning a gold medal for the U.S.? It had to be something that was very serious."

Bhardwaj-Barry added the 'twisties,' as Biles' current condition is commonly referred to in the gymnastics world, is incredibly difficult to handle. She knows first-hand.

"You basically don't know where the floor is or the ceiling is, so you're literally lost in space," Bhardwaj-Barry said. "The twitsties sometimes don't even have anything to do with your gymnastics. It can be something that's going on in your home life, or with your friends."

Bhardwaj-Barry added, "For her to actually step up and be honest about it -- that's huge."

Article Topic Follows: Olympic Zone
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Max Goldwasser

Max Goldwasser is a reporter and producer for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Max here.

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