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Argentine gymnast hopes to break new ground

By Brian Hagenbuch

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - No one would have dared to bet a few years ago that Argentine gymnast Valeria Pereyra would be competing at the 2012 Olympic Games but the late starter puts her place in London down to five years of sacrifice.

Most Olympic gymnasts start formal training as young two or three years old, however, Pereyra, who at 16 will be the youngest Argentine competing at the London Games, did not get serious about gymnastics until she was 11.

"I think it's all a reward. I started training late, because at 11 years old as a gymnast you're already old. You already have a base and it's difficult to improve that base," she told Reuters in an interview at the Cenard national high performance training facility on the edge off the capital.

"I think the sacrifice I've made for the last five years is showing results. And obviously it was not just me, because I have a lot of people around me who help and support me. I'm very happy," added the blonde schoolgirl with an easy smile and braces on her top teeth.

Pereyra's days are grueling. She gets up at five in the morning to make the one-and-a-half-hour bus ride to the gym, where she runs through four-hour training under the eye of coach Daniela Conde.

A lover of Twitter who messages fans about what she is doing, she eats a quick lunch before hustling off to high school in the afternoon.

FINAL GOAL

Conde has Pereyra working hard on all disciplines, floor routine, which is her favorite, uneven bars, vault and balance beam, and hopes she can put in a strong overall performance and make it to the final.

"I qualified for London 2012. The idea is to train hard with the clear objective of making it into the top 24 and getting into the final round. It's a pretty high goal, but we really want to do it. We are working at 100 percent to get closer every day," Pereyra said.

The young Argentine booked her Olympic place at trials in London in January, where she finished 21st among the 30 who directly qualified.

"The fact that I'm going, I think changes my situation, to have on my resume the Olympic Games is no small thing. And obviously I have the pressure on me that a ton of Argentines are going to be watching me, but I want to do it," she said.

She will be the first Argentine woman gymnast to compete at the Games since Celeste Carnevale went to Athens in 2004.

With Federico Molinari also going to take part in men's events it will be the first time since Atlanta in 1996 that Argentina will be represented at the Games by gymnasts of both sexes.

Gymnastics in Argentina lags behind other Latin American countries like Mexico and Brazil, who each won three gold medals at the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico six months ago, half the number won by the United States. Argentina won no medals at all.

(Writing by Rex Gowar; Editing by Alison Wildey)