Heavy Medal

For her next trick, Carly Patterson attempts to trade in somersaults for singing

LOST: America's Sweetheart. 16 years old. A bubbly, tumbling pixie. Last seen in Athens, Greece, wearing a captivating smile and three Olympic medals.

Starbucks, of all places.

Making the impossible look cutesy, Carly Patterson does a couple twisting round-off back flips and winds up stealing our headlines and hearts. Then, just like that, the Allen teen who vaulted onto the front of a cereal box dismounts onto the back of a milk carton.

Until today, that is, when she emerges from the lost-and-found and utters four words you never expect to hear from an Olympic legend: "Meet me at Starbucks."

The omnipresent coffee shop on Allen's McDermott Road is bustling with MILFs sipping Triple Latte Frappuccinos and SUVs stacked seven-deep in the drive-through. You have a better chance seeing the Virgin Mary at Benny's Bagels than Carly Patterson at Starbucks, yet no one raises an eyebrow, much less a toast, when the American hero strides in.

Maybe it's because she isn't wearing her medals.

"I don't just wear them around town every day," Carly says with a laugh. "They're in a sock, inside a safe. Not a special sock. But not an old smelly one either. Just a sock."

Maybe it's because since seizing Athens two summers ago and becoming the first American in 20 years to win the Women's All-Around gymnastics gold, she's faded from mainstream sports' consciousness.

"People don't come up to me a lot, but I get a lot of staring," she says. "I can tell they're wondering, 'Hmm, where do I know her from?'"

Or maybe--no, probably--it's because you wouldn't recognize her. The 16-year-old Carly was a 4-foot-9 talented Tinkerbell that fit comfortably in the cup holder of a Hyundai. The 18-year-old Carly is a 5-foot-2, heftier, healthier woman. Sure 'nuff, spunky is growing into sexy. The 16-year-old Carly was all taut muscles and sharp angles. The 18-year-old Carly has...um... kinda...well...she's...

"I got boobs!" she whispers, playfully cupping her new additions.

Confirms mother Natalie, "Yeah, bigboobs."

How convenient. Because when she mesmerizes the world a second time, Carly won't rely on sweet sass and somersaults but sex appeal and singing.

Says Carly excitedly, "I wanna be a pop star. That's my next thing."

She's already cutting demos with Joe Simpson (the engineer daddy behind Richardson-reared Jessica and Ashlee) and on Tuesday night was scheduled to make her debut on the latest Simon Cowell reality show, FOX's Celebrity Duets.

But before Carly can become the next Mary J. Blige, she had to quit being the current Mary Lou Retton.

"I'm retired," she says without a twinge of remorse. "I accomplished everything I could've imagined in gymnastics, and I'm totally satisfied. I'm not going to be the little 16-year-old Olympic gymnast all my life. It's on to the next challenge."

Other than that relentless commercial for Mobile ESPN, Carly's role on the traditional sports landscape has evaporated from gold-medal goddess to ghost. Doesn't mean she hasn't been busy since August 19, 2004. There was the appearance at the MTV Awards, the photo on the Wheaties box, the autobiography (Carly Patterson: Be Strong), the hiccup part in the movie Stick It("A tiny, tiny cameo," she says) and the trips to drab destinations such as Pennsylvania and Tennessee for gymnastics camps and exotic locales such as China, Hawaii, Australia and Cancun, where she got recognized on family vacation.

"That comes with the territory, and I'm totally cool with it," she says, still not attracting as much as a double take at Starbucks. "Honestly, I like it. I worked hard and accomplished a lot. I don't want to be ignored."

Today, however, she's involuntarily incognito. Hours before heading to Hollywood for six weeks, Carly arrives in her silver Ford Mustang wearing a trendy blue military cap, nondescript T-shirt, gray gym shorts, flip-flops and enough rubber bracelets to channel Madonna's "Lucky Star" phase. No, wait! She iswearing gold around her neck after all.

"Mom gave it to me for graduation," Carly says of the 14-karat padlock 'n' key pendant.

Natalie beams. "So she'll remember who has the key to her heart."

For now Carly's burgeoning reincarnation is void of a Kevin Federline--"It's hard when you're traveling," she says, blushing. "I don't have a boyfriend...but there's a guy I have a crush on."

In search of boys and, really, herself, Carly recently visited a place she'd bypassed along the heroine highway--her childhood. Training at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, her high school years were spent in daily doses of three and a half hours practice/three hours of school/three and a half hours practice.

Says Carly, "That lifestyle stunts your growth."

Luckily the human body, especially an 18-year-old one, is resilient. The time away from tumbling, with an assist from acupuncture and chiropractors, is allowing the fractured vertebrae and herniated discs in Carly's back finally to heal.

"She never really got a chance to grow up," Natalie admits. "She didn't have an ounce of fat on her body. From a physical standpoint and socially, it's such a strict regimen. She's just now getting a chance to be a teenager and enjoy life."

Along with graduating from Plano's Spring Creek Academy, Carly's catching up on the finer points of adolescence. Such as eating pizza. And sleeping past sunrise.

"I watched [younger sister] Jordan sleep in all those years," Carly says. "I was sooo jealous."

Pluto somehow lost its badge as a planet, so anything's possible. Even a one-trick pony tail that America devoured as if a continental breakfast--satisfying yet forgettable--maturing into a two-sport superstar shaping gold medals into gold records.

"She's not there yet," says Natalie, who serves as manager, publicist and best friend, "but I can see her becoming just as dedicated to singing as she was gymnastics."

On Duets she'll sing with Smokey Robinson and Lee Ann Womack, compete against Lucy Lawless and Cheech Marin and be judged by Little Richard and Marie Osmond, all for the chance at $100,000 and a recording contract. Just as Cowell called, Carly was enrolling at Collin County Community College in pursuit of becoming a dental hygienist.

But for now, the American idol is fixated on becoming an American Idol.

"People will see I'm serious about singing," says Carly, whose boundless energy allows her to endure the hour interview without a Starbucks signature delicacy. "It's no joke or publicity stunt. I think I can really sing, and I'm gonna go for it."

FOUND: America's Next Pop Star. 18 years old. A mature, sultry singer. Last seen in Allen, Texas, with stars in her eyes.

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