39-year-old Norwegian gymnast has fun with kids

Espen Jansen is not old for the kiddie sport of gymnastics.

And no, it's not because he's losing his hearing.

Three months shy of his 39th birthday, Norway's best gymnast competed in his 13th world championships Monday. Though he had mistakes on his first three events - high bar, floor exercise and pommel horse - his overall score of 82.875 was still more than a point better than last year.

Higher than his two teen-aged teammates, too.

"I've said I'll do it as long as it's fun and as long as it's going the right way," said Jansen, the oldest gymnast at worlds.

Jansen never intended to be the Iron Man in a sport where athletes peak in their mid-20s. He actually retired after the 1997 world championships. People were telling him then he was too old, and he and his wife, Anne Kristin, had had their first child.

"I said, 'Thank you, everyone,' and I quit," he said.

But the 1999 world championships were in China, where his old coach was from. Why don't you come back, his coach said, do a few events.

"I said, 'OK, I'll do some events,"' Jansen said. "And I did all six."

He stuck around for a few more years to help another teammate train for the Athens Olympics. He considered quitting after that, but just couldn't after seeing the new scoring system the International Gymnastics Federation adopted last year.

While the new system has been an adjustment for most gymnasts, it's like going back to basics for Jansen. His "A" scores - the marks a gymnast gets for difficulty - are in the 5s, and have actually gone up in the last year.

"It's a lot of the elements from the old days, when we had compulsories," he said.

Finding time to train isn't that hard, either - even with four children who range from 3 to 10. Jansen is the head of sports and culture at a prison in Oslo, so it's his job to work out.

"I'm training with the inmates," he said. "They can push me hard."

And by continuing to compete, Jansen hopes he can push the next generation of Norwegian gymnasts.

Norway is hardly a powerhouse in the sport, and there wasn't much to the program when Jansen was in his prime. But it's gotten much better in recent years, and Jansen would like to see his country go even further.

"I hope in a few years they will be much better," he said. "We are now training better than in a long time, and I think the young ones have a great opportunity to be good. I wish I'd had that opportunity when I was younger."

Not that he's about to hang up his grips.

Jansen had hoped to do well enough here to qualify for the all-around and give himself a shot at earning a trip to the Beijing Olympics. That isn't likely to happen - the top 24 advance to the all-around and he was 32nd after the third of eight qualifying sessions - but Jansen said he doesn't have a retirement date in mind.

"It's difficult to say," he said. "There are some good things with me on which I'm still getting better. So that's a reason to continue. Also, I'm still the best in Norway, so that's a reason to continue.

"I would like to (still) be a part of it," he added. "Hopefully when I can't do that anymore, I will be part of it in coaching."

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Author`s name Angela Antonova