ATLANTA (AP) _ Svetlana Boginskaya was such a fierce competitor as a youngster that she would pull her rivals' hair so they'd be too scared to come back to the gym.

As she got older, Boginskaya didn't need such dirty tactics. She was one of the best on the Soviet Union's powerful gymnastics team, winning 13 Olympic and world championship medals. And if her ability wasn't enough to intimidate opponents, her icy stare was.

But now, as Boginskaya prepares for her third Olympics at 23, the mean streak is gone. She doesn't worry about where she'll finish or how many _ if any _ medals she'll win. For the first time in her career, the grand dame of gymnastics is competing for herself.

``I'm not thinking about the success and the judges, I just want to compete,'' said Boginskaya, the 1990 world champion. ``It's not that I don't care how I finish, I'm just doing it for myself. ... Whatever happens, it's great.''

Part of Boginskaya's attitude comes from knowing how close she came to missing Atlanta. When she competed in Barcelona at 19, U.S. coach Bela Karolyi criticized her, saying she was too old to be a contender. She left with only a team gold medal, and many wondered if Karolyi was right.

With the Soviet Union gone and its successor, the Unified Team, a thing of the past after Barcelona, Boginskaya retired. She spent a year in her hometown of Minsk in Belarus before moving to the United States in 1993.

She settled in Boston and toured with some gymnastics shows, got into modeling, then began coaching and working as a choreographer. But as she watched the 1994 world championships, Boginskaya realized she wanted more.

``I was seeing all the girls who I competed with in Barcelona,'' she said. ``I was so excited and almost crying. I thought, `Maybe I should go to the gym and try again. I still have some energy.' ''

So Boginskaya called her old nemesis, Karolyi, and asked if he would coach her. The request was a shock to Karolyi, who'd always thought she was a mean, nasty girl. It didn't help that she'd refused to shake the hand of Karolyi's protege, Kim Zmeskal, when Zmeskal upset Boginskaya at the 1991 world championships in Indianapolis.

Boginskaya laughs at Karolyi's opinion of her, but doesn't disagree.

``When I was little, I was so bad,'' she said, chuckling. ``I'm a different person at 23 than I was when I was 14.''

Karolyi sensed the change in Boginskaya, and told her to come to his Houston gym. Zmeskal was trying to make a comeback, too, and he'd train the two together.

Boginskaya first worked with a Russian coach, even following him when he left Karolyi for another Houston gym. She returned to Karolyi shortly after and her comeback soon hit full speed.

She finished second at the prestigious American Cup in March, winning the uneven bars, balance beam and vault. She also showed off her new personality, laughing off a major mistake in the floor routine.

Although she left Karolyi soon after to return to Belarus, Boginskaya kept working. She finished second in the all-around at the European championships in May.

While it might seem as if Boginskaya returned to her old form with little effort, she says it hasn't been easy.

``When I was little, everything came so easy to me. Now, I'm trying to add more difficulty, and I may not get it on the second time. Maybe the 10th time,'' she said. ``I have to do more and more work.

``When I was younger, I did this because I didn't have anything else to do,'' she continues. ``Maybe I didn't want to at times, but I had to for my country. It was Russia. Now I'm just doing it for myself because I want it.''