WATERVILLE — Girl after girl worked on the balance beam during Thursday morning’s session of the Maine Challenge Gymnastic Camp. Each one received words of encouragement from an impeccable source.

“There you go. Better,” Carly Patterson said. “Good job.”

At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Patterson was the first American to win the women’s gymnastics all-around gold medal since Mary Lou Retton did it 20 years earlier. Patterson was just 16, and naive about how her world would change.

“It was really crazy because I didn’t have anyone to look up to who did it before me. Mary Lou did it 20 years before me, and I didn’t get to see that. I didn’t get to see what life was like after you win an Olympic gold medal,” Patterson said. “I just had no clue. I thought I was going to go home and be normal Carly. Nobody was going to care, and that was the complete opposite (of what happened). It was a total whirlwind. Going everywhere, it was just non-stop for several years. Just constantly on the road.”

Then, it was over. That’s the thing about Olympic fame. It has a four-year shelf life. The attention remained focused on Patterson until 2008, when it was time for the Beijing Summer Olympics. In Beijing, United States gymnast Nastia Liukin won the all-around gold medal. In the London Summer Olympics in 2012, American Gabby Douglas won all-around gold. Last year in Rio de Janeiro, Simone Biles gave the United States its fourth Olympic all-around champion in a row. The club that included just Retton for 20 years now has five members.

“There was another American who won it after, and an American who won it after (that). We’ve had a four-peat now,” Patterson said. “You have your four years, and, not that you’re done, but in a way, I guess you are…. I guess I was so busy for a little bit, doing all kinds of things, that it did take me away from that every day being in the gym 24-7. That was my normal life, and it completely changed. Being on the road non-stop, that was a big change, and probably a nice change. My back was really starting to give me trouble. It was a good break from everything for me.”

Those back injuries forced Patterson to retire from competitive gymnastics in 2006. She pursued a singing career for a while, but that didn’t work out. The spotlight after winning Olympic gold was one thing. To live with that attention constantly was something Patterson decided she didn’t want.

“I figured out (singing) wasn’t what I wanted to do. I feel like I’ve been around and gotten time to figure out life and what I love and what’s important,” Patterson said. “After I started singing, I realized, this isn’t the life for me. I’m a private person. I’m very normal, and I wouldn’t want that famous life. I couldn’t do it.”

Attending events like the Maine Challenge Gymnastic Camp are a way for Patterson to stay involved in her sport. Most of the campers weren’t alive when Patterson stood at the top of the medal podium in Athens 13 years ago, but they can listen to her. They know Patterson’s accomplishments, and her words hold weight.

“I try and just talk to them about all of the great life lessons gymnastics gives you at such a young age. Just learning about being dedicated and committed to something. Working hard. Telling them that just doesn’t end in the gym. That translates into your every day life, even after gymnastics. Gymnastics won’t last forever. They’re already learning some core vaules,” Patterson said. “Hard work never disappears. That’s what my coach would tell me that when I was struggling. As long as you stay committed and keep showing up, your hard work’s not going to just disappear.”

Patterson lives in Dallas, and she and her husband, Mark Caldwell, are expecting their first child this fall.

“Gymnastics isn’t a sport where you can continue to keep up that pace and that hardcore training for every four years and just go and win and win. You have your time, and you enjoy every minute of it. I still have the best of both worlds. When I’m at home, I’m normal Carly. I’m a housewife, soon-to-be mom. Then I get to come out here and still be involved in gymnastics and work with kids and be around the sport I have such a passion for,” Patterson said.

Physical abilities decline and fame is fleeting. The gold medal Patterson won, though, that’s forever.

“I always said, everything that happened after was a fun experience and icing on the cake I just never even expected,” Patterson said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM