July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

With her tattoos, piercings and advanced age—at 25, her peers were put out to pasture long ago—Mohini Bhardwaj knows she’s “not the typical pixie gymnast.” Yet that’s exactly why Pamela Anderson stopped by her L.A. gym in late May, after hearing from a pal about the Olympic hopeful’s fund-raising raffle. “We hit it off,” says Bhardwaj. “She said, ‘Forget the raffle ticket. I’m interested in funding the whole thing.’ ”

With Anderson’s backing ($20,000 and climbing), the age-defying gymnast hopes to pull off her trickiest maneuver yet: landing on August’s six-woman U.S. Olympic team. As Anderson cheered her on, Bhardwaj finished sixth at the Anaheim, Calif., Olympic trials Jun. 27, earning an invite to this month’s selection camp. “She’s so inspiring,” says Anderson, a onetime gymnast. “You want to see her on a Wheaties box.”

The Philadelphia native, an 11-time All-American at UCLA, briefly retired after dislocating her elbow in 2002 and began working as a pool-hall cocktail waitress. However, she “was constantly thinking of going back” to the sport and resumed training last spring. With her credit cards maxed out, Bhardwaj received Anderson’s backing just in time. The actress—who said she “absolutely” will travel to Athens and cheer Bhardwaj on if she makes the team—is relishing her new role as cheerleader. Says Bhardwaj: “She wanted me to have all the attention.”

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