ST. LOUIS _ Bridget Sloan knows her audience well: squirmy 6- to 14-year-olds, staring up with adoring eyes, asking questions about her favorite tumbling routine, her hardest skill on the beam and what it's like to stand on the podium at the Olympics with a silver medal around your neck.
Sloan was in St. Louis recently to promote the USA Gymnastics Championships, which will be conducted June 7-10 at Chaifetz Arena, a task she enjoys. Though still a teenager, she has become an ambassador for the sport, making frequent visits to gymnastics centers across the country to talk to young gymnasts and their parents. She also is familiar with St. Louis because her mother, Mary, has relatives here and she has visited before.
"This isn't my first rodeo," she said.
Though she's an Olympic veteran, Sloan isn't ready for the last roundup. Not exactly world-weary at 19, Sloan is pretty grounded for a high-flying sport in which youth is at a premium.
Many of her Olympic and national teammates have paid a high price to reach the elite level, leaving home for years to train or being home-schooled. Sloan had what she considers the stupendous good fortune of attending the elementary and high schools closest to her home in Pittsboro, Ind., and training her entire career at Sharp's Gymnastics Academy less than 20 miles away in Indianapolis.
"My childhood was way too normal," she said.
Barely 16 at the time of the Beijing Games in 2008, Sloan was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic squad, which won a silver medal in the team competition.
"Winning any medal is an accomplishment, but seeing the flag; words don't describe the feeling going through your body on the podium," she said. "I was a little worried that the crowd would be unfriendly, but they were one of the best. So many people from the States were there to support us."
After her Olympic team success, Sloan stepped into the spotlight in 2009, having what many gymnasts would consider a career year as the U.S. and world overall champion.
"The Olympics were a huge accomplishment, but winning an individual medal has a different hit because it's all you," she said. "Those scores were my scores. It was hard for me to keep the tears back when the national anthem was played in my name."
Injuries piled up last year, though, including a serious ankle sprain, a pectoral injury and a biceps tear, which required surgery in February and sidelined her until September.
"The injuries were like a ticking time bomb, but the biceps caught me off-guard," she said. "After the surgery, we had to think realistically about what would prepare me best for this year and next. I needed to be out there in front of the crowd at least once this year."
Thus, she entered the Pan Am Games in October, when the U.S. won gold. Sloan's contribution was limited after she needed 11 stitches to close a gash in a heel, suffered two days before the competition.
"It's healing slowly but surely. It was a random incident," she said, not long thereafter. "The stitches did the job."
Sloan should have ample time to heal, through the first half of 2012, before the Olympic selection process begins here. In the past, the nationals started the process, followed by Trials, followed by a camp to select the team. The timing of the nationals in early June and the Trials three weeks later in San Jose, Calif., leaves no time for a camp before the Olympics start July 27 in London.
Four present or former world champions will compete for five spots on the U.S. team, down from the six who competed in Beijing. Sloan wouldn't have it any other way, even though the process is doubly nerve-wracking.
"I'm biased, but I think ours is the hardest," she said. "But it's the best way to get a team of athletes who are the best at the time. A lot of people wonder if I'm guaranteed a spot, but that isn't true. No one is. You have to be among the best at the time."
Come September, though, Sloan's gymnastics career will take a step backward. She plans to enroll at the University of Florida, where she will compete and work toward a degree in mass communications and a future in sports broadcasting.
"Gymnastics will still be great, and I'll love to compete, but I didn't choose Florida for the gymnastics," she said. "I chose it for the school. I chose it for my future."