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Chapter One

“All right Ladies, let’s get this show on the road,” Mel Peterson called as she came into the main gym.

Jane McCormick got up from the lounge area where she had been sitting with her best friend and teammate, Alexis O’Neill, and began going down the stairs to the lower floor.  The other three girls in her training group were already gathering in the center of the of the floor exercise mat for their pre-workout circle. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, Jane caught sight of a small, dark-haired girl dressed in a leotard and shorts, following Mel across the floor.  The girl was not a member of their gym, but Jane recognized her immediately.

“Hey, what’s ZZ Graham doing here?” she asked Alexis.

Alexis’s head whipped around faster than a figure skater’s.  “Where?”

“Following Mel.”

They watched as ZZ took a place among the gymnasts circling up in the center of the floor.  “Looks like she’s training with us,” Alexis said.

Jane raised her eyebrows at Alexis as they took their places in the circle.  At Camp and at other gyms Jane had seen, workouts always began and ended with the gymnasts lined up and the coach facing them.  Mel’s gym was different. They began and ended their workouts with a circle, so that everyone could see each other. Mel tried to promote a culture of openness, communication, and mutual respect in the gym.

Once everyone had quieted down, Mel began speaking.  “Welcome to Monday morning.” Her long, blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail and she was wearing black yoga pants, a white Mandan Academy of Gymnastics and Dance T-shirt, and tennis shoes.   “I hope you all had a great day off yesterday. You’ve probably noticed we have a new gymnast with us this morning. In case you haven’t recognized her by now, this is ZZ Graham.” Mel gestured toward ZZ, who smiled a bit shyly.  “She will be joining our elite team and I hope you will all make her feel welcome. With that in mind, why don’t we go around the circle and introduce ourselves? ZZ, let’s start with you.”

ZZ looked a bit nervous, but smiled and said, “You probably all know about me, but I’m ZZ.  I’m nineteen and I just moved here from Texas with my mom. She got a great job offer and I decided to move with her rather than stay down there all alone.  I’m hoping to make the World Championship team and hang on until the Olympics, if I’m not too old by then.” She grinned and looked around the circle, as if silently daring anyone to ask a question.

Jane could see from the faces of the other girls that there was one question every single one of them wanted answered, but no one had the guts to actually ask.  Two years before, ZZ had been one of the National Team Coordinator, Irina Niyazov’s, favorites. She had gone to Worlds the year before the Olympics and brought back the all-around gold along with the floor exercise gold and vault bronze.  She had been a huge part of the reason the US had won the team competition at that world championship as well.

But then things began to change.  There were rumors of physical and emotional abuse by ZZ’s coaches, financial exploitation by her parents, and wild behavior on ZZ’s part, but nothing was ever officially substantiated.  Then, ZZ changed gyms three times in quick succession. Finally, ZZ landed at Texas All-Stars, one of the leading gyms in the country. But even though her gymnastics remained strong, she was not selected for several key competitions in the year leading up to the Olympics.  And finally, she was left at home from the Games in favor of other, less successful gymnasts.

Immediately, there was speculation about why the US would leave the reigning World All-Around champion at home in favor of girls who had far less international experience and success.  The official answer from the USGF and Irina had been that ZZ had injured her leg, making her only able to compete on bars, which was her weakest event. They needed an all-arounder or at least someone with three strong events to have the best shot at winning in the team competition, so they went with another gymnast.  However, there were quite a few people in the gymnastics community who felt that ZZ had been left off the team because she was a problem. But since the USGF and Irina had stuck by their stories and ZZ had not denied being injured, the story faded into the background as the US team dominated the competition at the Games.  Now, nine months later, ZZ was apparently ready to stage a comeback.

Before anyone could work up the courage to ask ZZ about her absence on the Olympic team, Mel nodded at Heather Bainborough, who was standing to ZZ’s right, and Heather began introducing herself.  The girls went around the circle, each telling ZZ her name, age and level of gymnastics. Besides Jane and Alexis, who were (until ZZ came) the only senior elites on the team, there were three junior elites: Heather, Joni Wiltshire, and Morgan Anderson. Since they were so close in ability the junior and senior elite gymnasts trained together most of the time and got along well.

After everyone had introduced themselves, Mel began speaking again.  “Okay, now that we’re all acquainted, I’d like to go over the next few competitions.”  Six sets of ears perked up. “All six of you are going to be competing at the US Classic at the end of July,” Mel continued. “Most of you will need to score a certain number of points in order to advance to the next competition, which is Nationals.”  

Mel turned her attention to the junior elite gymnasts.  “Heather, and Morgan, you’ll both need to score 50.500 to qualify as a junior.  Joni, since you had an international assignment at Jesolo last year you have an automatic berth to Nationals.  But I want you to treat the Classic as a warm-up competition and shoot for above the qualification score. If you make the junior national team, you’ll have the chance to be selected for international competitions in the next year.”  The junior gymnasts nodded and Mel turned her attention to the three seniors.

“ZZ, Jane, and Alexis, since none of you had international assignments last year you’ll need to qualify to Nationals by scoring fifty-two points.  Jane and Alexis, since you both scored well above fifty-two at the elite qualifier, I’m confident that you’ll have no problem advancing to Nationals.  And ZZ, even though you’ve been out of competition for a while, I know you haven’t taken a break from training. I don’t think you’ll have any difficulty scoring fifty-two points.  At Nationals, the top two all-around gymnasts will have automatic berths to Worlds. The top twelve girls from Nationals will attend a selection camp two weeks before Worlds, which is where Irina will select the other five members of the team along with two travelling alternates.  I think all of you have the potential to make the World team.” She looked at each of the three senior gymnasts. Jane was desperately hoping to be named to the team, but she knew that the competition was going to be stiff.

“We’ve got a little over seven weeks to prepare,” Mel continued.  “So starting today, we’re going to be focusing on getting consistent and perfecting routines.  We’ll be steadily increasing the number of routines you do during each practice. The more routines you’ve got under your belt the better.  Remember, every routine you do, every move you make in practice counts toward what you do on the competition floor, so we’ve gotta use our time wisely.  I’m expecting one hundred percent from each of you.” She looked around the circle, meeting each girl’s eyes.

“You know, we talk all the time about giving your all in practice.  You take what you do in practice with you into the competition. If you give everything you’ve got every day here, MAGD will turn you into the best gymnast you can be.  Each of you should already be very proud of yourselves for making it to this level, but let's also remember that we didn't get to this level by patting ourselves on the back.  So today, I want all of you to be thinking about your goals for this competition. And not only performance goals, like how you want to place. You should also be thinking in terms of your own personal goals, such as hitting four routines or sticking all of your landings.  If you’re comfortable sharing those goals with me, I’d be happy to hear them after practice and help you reach them.” She looked around at the six gymnasts. “Joni, what’s our word of the day?”

Every day, one of the girls was responsible for choosing a “word of the day,”to help with motivation.  Joni unfolded a small piece of paper that she had been holding in her hand. “Today’s word is ‘Power,’” she said.  “It means, ‘the capability of doing or accomplishing something.’ I chose this word because it reminds us that we are all capable and have the power to accomplish our goals if we work hard.”

“All right, let’s bring it in,” Mel said, placing her hand into the center of the circle.  Jane and her teammates followed suit, adding their hands on top of Mel’s. ZZ followed along, although Jane thought she looked a bit lost.  “Power on three,” Mel said. “One, two, three!”

As the six gymnasts threw their hands toward the ceiling, they filled the gym with their shout of “Power!”

They began their usual Monday morning workout on vault.  Since there were two vault runways, the juniors took one and the seniors took the other.  Jane was a bit nervous, not sure what to say to ZZ so she was relieved when the new girl started the conversation.

“So, how long have you two been at MAGD?”

“A little over ten years,” Alexis answered.  “We’ve both been here since we started gymnastics.”

“Wow, I can’t imagine what that would be like.  I’ve been to like a million gyms since the one I started at.”  She finished putting on her wrist supports and began adjusting the vault table to the proper height.  Jane squatted down to help her as Alexis began removing one of the spiral springs from a springboard. “Is it always this group of gymnasts working out together?”  ZZ asked as they worked.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Alexis said.  “Sometimes in the evenings a few of the level ten girls train with us if they’re interested in moving up to elite.”  

They finished adjusting the height of the vault and then began stacking large mats in the landing area.  “Can you believe that they actually increased the size of the World and Olympic teams back up to seven members?” ZZ asked.  Jane liked that she asked a lot of questions about gymnastics. It made it easy to keep the conversation going.

“I about fell over when I heard,” Jane replied.  “But it’s great for us. I mean, they were talking about cutting the Olympic team down to four girls.  Talk about pressure. Only choosing four girls every four years.”

“I read that they are trying to move back to more of an old-style format for Worlds and the Olympics,” Alexis said.  “So they went back to seven-member teams, and Worlds will just be every two years like it was back in the eighties. Oh, and they took away the new life rule.  Now your scores in prelims count toward your team, all-around, and event finals scores.”

“I like that they killed the new life rule and made Worlds every two years again,” ZZ said.  “Worlds and Olympics are the two biggest, most important competitions in gymnastics. They’re like the pinnacle of the sport.  Everyone dreams of being World and Olympic Champion. It makes sense that they should be the hardest to win and not be contested every year.  Having Worlds more often just took all the prestige out of it.”

“You’re right,” Jane said.  “If you win a World Championship, you should get to keep the title for two years.  Anyway, I’m just glad they didn’t bring back compulsories.”

“Oh, my God, tell me about it,” ZZ said.  “Can you imagine sitting through about a hundred girls doing the exact same thing?  How did the judges keep from falling asleep? Or keep from pulling their hair out after listening to the same floor music ninety-six times in a row? And the compulsory routines were always so easy and boring.”

“Well, I’m glad they didn’t go back to the perfect ten scoring system,” Alexis said.  “I like the open ended scoring.”

The girls heaved the last mat onto the stack and then sprinted up to the head of the runway.  “Me too,” Jane said when they stopped running. “It actually rewards gymnasts for doing extra difficulty or something innovative.”   

“Let’s see more working and less talking,” Mel called from where she was perched on a stack of mats down by the vault tables.  The three junior gymnasts had already begun practicing their timers and Mel was looking at the three seniors expectantly.

“Are we not allowed to talk here?” ZZ whispered to Jane as Alexis began sprinting down the runway to do a timer.

“Nah,” Jane replied in a normal voice.  “As long as we get our work done, we can talk as much as we want.  Mel’s just giving us a little push. She’s a pretty laid back coach, but she does expect us to work.”

ZZ smiled, her dark eyes twinkling.  “I knew I was going to like it here,” she said.

Jane smiled back at ZZ, thinking she was going to enjoy working with the new girl.  Then she set her mind to vaulting and got to work. As soon as Alexis had gotten off the mat at the far end of the runway, Jane began sprinting toward the vault table.  She focused on her body position as she went through the Yurchenko timer. It was a good vault, but she could tell that she had spent the previous day vegging on Alexis’s couch, eating air-popped popcorn, and watching Hands of the Stars, a reality show about massage therapists who worked on the rich and famous.  It usually took her body awhile to get back into the groove on Monday mornings and today was no exception.

“If you can get your hands more toward the front of the table, you’ll get more height,” Mel called to her from her spot on the stack of mats.  “You’re hitting the back part of the table, so you’re going long, but not high.”

Jane nodded and rolled off the mat.  She loitered around the mat so she could check out ZZ’s timer.  From what Jane remembered, ZZ was a power gymnast like Alexis. She was awesome at the events that capitalized on strength and tricks, so she was a natural at vault.  Jane watched as ZZ sprinted down the runway and did a round off, her feet slamming into the springboard with a crash. She rebounded and flew backward, her hands connected with the table, and she flew into the afterflight.  She kept her body completely straight as she flipped over and landed on her back.

As ZZ rolled off the mat, Jane sprinted back up the runway so that she would be ready for her next turn.  After each girl had done a couple of different timers, they worked through some drills and then finished up vault practice with running through their competition vaults several times.  Jane was pleased with her vaulting progress. She had been focusing on vaulting, since it was the most challenging event for her. Jane was more of a tall, graceful gymnast, so vaulting, which relied on power, was a little more difficult than some of the other events.  But her goal was to be an all-around gymnast, one with no visible weaknesses, so she had been putting in more time on conditioning and technique, trying to perfect her double-twisting Yurchenko.

                                                                                          *          *          *

The three-hour practice session went quickly and soon they were standing in the center of the floor exercise mat, gathered in their closing circle.  The gym was empty except for a Mommy-and- Me class that was gathering near the front entrance.

“All right, everyone,” Mel said when they had settled into their circle.  She had several pieces of different colored poster board and a large black marker with her.  “That was a great practice. Let’s keep this focus going over the next few weeks. I trust that each of you has thought about your goals for the US Classic.  Would anyone like to share?” She picked up the marker.

There was a brief pause, and then Alexis spoke up.  “I’ve got a couple. First, I’d like to place top five in the all-around and top three on vault.  Preferably win vault. But I also want to challenge myself to go four for four with no major mistakes.”

“Great,” Mel said, smiling at Alexis.  “What color do you want?” Alexis chose the green poster board, so Mel wrote Alexis’s name at the top of the paper, then neatly wrote her goals beneath her name.  “I think those are very achievable goals. Next?”

“I’ll take the blue paper,” Joni said.  “And I’d like to set a goal of scoring fifty-five points in the all-around,” Joni said.  “That would be a personal best. For my personal goal, I want to hit beam. I fell during my last competition.”

“Awesome,” Mel said, nodding and writing Joni’s name and goals onto the blue poster board.

“I’ve only got one goal, and it’s to go four for four, no falls, no big mistakes,” Heather said.  “Oh, and I’ll take the yellow paper.”

Mel smiled at her and wrote down her goal.  “Good one, Heather,” she said. No one else spoke up right away, so Mel promoted Jane.

“My goal is to qualify for Nationals, but I’d also like to place top-three all-around and win bars.  And I want to stick my vault. Purple paper please.”

Mel grinned and wrote down Jane’s goals.  “Big goals are the best. Morgan?”

“Placing top ten all-around,” Morgan said.  “And also sticking my floor passes. I’d like the pink paper.”

“Great.  And last but not least, ZZ?”

“Vindication,” ZZ said, her black eyes snapping and her face clouding over.  “I’m here to make it impossible for Irina to leave me off the World team. So I’m aiming to win.”