“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 went down the stairs to the lower floor. The other two 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?”
They watched as ZZ took a place among the others 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. Their workouts began and ended with a circle, so that everyone could see each other.
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 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 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 and floor exercise gold medals along with a bronze on vault. 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 abuse by ZZ’s coaches, financial exploitation by her parents, and wild behavior on ZZ’s part, but nothing was ever officially proven. Then ZZ changed gyms a few times in quick succession. Finally, she 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 months 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 publicly 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.
“My name’s Heather, and I'm thirteen. I just qualified to junior elite this year, and I've been at MAGD for three years.”
“I'm Morgan. I've been competing junior elite for two years and I've been training here for about three. Oh, and I'm almost fifteen.”
Alexis was next in the circle. “My name’s Alexis and I'm fifteen. I'm turning sixteen in September so I'm competing senior this year.”
“I'm Jane and I'm basically Alexis’s twin, except she's three months older. I'm a first-year senior and I'll be sixteen in December.”
“Okay,” Mel said. “Now that we’re all acquainted, I’d like to go over the next few competitions.” Five sets of ears perked up. “All 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 Nationals.”
Mel turned her attention to the junior elite gymnasts. “Heather, you’ll need to score fifty point five to qualify. Morgan, 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 three weeks before Worlds, which is where Irina will select the other five members of the team along with one traveling alternate. 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 for the Classic,” 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. Remember, every routine you do, every move you make here 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 here 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 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. “Heather, what’s our word of the day?”
Every day, one of the girls was responsible for choosing a “word of the day,” for motivation. Heather 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 powerful and we’re all capable of reaching our goals if we work hard.”
“That’s a great word,” Mel said. “You are all powerful, amazing athletes and I’m honored to help you achieve your goals. All right, let’s bring it in.” She thrust her hand into the center of the circle. Jane and her teammates added their hands on top of Mel’s. ZZ followed along, although she looked a bit lost. “Power on three,” Mel said. “One, two, three!”
As the five gymnasts threw their hands toward the ceiling, they filled the empty gym with their shout of “Power!”
After warming up, they began their 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 about a million different 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. 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.” As a gymnast who relied on her high difficulty to score well in competitions, Alexis was a perfect example of a gymnast who excelled under the open-ended scoring system. “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 near the vault tables. The junior gymnasts had already begun practicing their timers and Mel was looking at the three seniors expectantly. The girls heaved the last mat onto the stack and then sprinted up to the head of the runway.
“Are we not allowed to talk here?” ZZ whispered to Jane as Alexis began sprinting back 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, icing sore muscles, eating air-popped popcorn, and watching Hands on 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 Jane 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 paused for a moment 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, connected with the table, and 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 awed at the older girl’s power and technique. She was going to give Alexis a run for her money for the vault title at Nationals. After each girl had done a couple of different timers, they worked through some drills and then finished up by 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. Being more of a tall, graceful gymnast made vaulting, which relied on power, 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, and it seemed to be paying off.
“All right,” Mel called. “Let's move to bars.”
Jane and the others began removing their wrist supports and trading them for grips. “We’re working on transitions today,” Mel said. “I want you focusing on form and execution. Today's assignment is three good transitions from low to high and three from high to low. Jane, you've got more transitions than everyone else. I want you to do three good Shaposhnikivas, and then three of your transition combos. While you're waiting for equipment, do your handstand drills, and if you get finished early, start working on release moves. You’ve got thirty minutes. Go!”
This time, the gymnasts split up into three groups, with two girls on each uneven bar set and one girl with a set all to herself. Jane paired with Alexis and Heather went with Morgan, leaving ZZ alone.
Jane worked quickly through her three Shaposhnikovas, focusing on form and execution and trying to make each one perfect. When she finished, she hopped down and practiced several drills while Alexis had a turn on the bars. By now, her body felt good, back in the groove of the workout.
When Alexis finished, Jane jumped up, grasped the high bar, and pulled her body over into a front support. Balancing with her hips on the bar, she took a moment to adjust her grips and run through her mental choreography before beginning. Nabieva, pak, van Leeuwen, she thought, naming the skills in the sequence. She went through the sequence in her mind, thinking the words she used while performing. Feet, up, SNAP! Stretch, catch, flip, catch, up, turn, catch.
The Nabieva was a toe-on reverse hecht, but in a layout position. Since she would be flying over the bar with her body straight and vertical above it, she needed to gather a lot of momentum. To perform the skill, she would begin in a handstand and as she circled down, her feet needed to come and rest between her hands. A millisecond later, she would shoot her feet straight up, and then snap her shoulders forward and hips back so that she could flip upright and backwards over the bar. The tricky part for Jane had always been the quick snap of her shoulders and hips.
As she cast up to a handstand, she began the mental choreography. Feet, up, SNAP! she thought, as she shot her legs into the air and then snapped her shoulders and hips into position. Stretch, she thought as she became vertical and began flying backwards over the bar. Then something grabbed her foot. She was tilting off balance, beginning to fall, her head moving down toward the mats. She managed to curl and flip enough so that she landed on her back and not her head, but she lay motionless for a few seconds on the mat to assess if she was hurt.
“You okay?” Mel asked, appearing above Jane. “Do I need to check the bar for bruises?”
“I’m okay. I must have caught my foot on the bar.”
“You think?” They both laughed. “Seriously, though, you didn’t get nearly enough height.”
“It felt so normal, though,” Jane said, sitting up. “I had no idea I was off until my foot hit the bar.”
“It was a pretty scary fall, but it’s probably just a fluke. Try it again.”
Jane got up and rechalked her hands, trying to forget that she had nearly broken her neck a minute before. She went through the mental choreography as she got up onto the high bar and balanced on her hips. When she felt ready, she tried again.
The air rushed past her as she flew down from the handstand and brought her feet up to the bar to rest between her hands for a split second. Then she was shooting her legs up and moving her body to get into the right position. But just as before, she caught her foot on the bar as she sailed over, and it knocked her out of the air again.
She let out a frustrated sigh as she sat up and rubbed her foot. She was going to have a bruise there tomorrow.
“Jane, go one more time,” Mel called, getting her phone out to film.
Jane got up and tried once more, performing a carbon copy of her last two failed attempts.
“Let Alexis go and come over here,” Mel said. Once Jane was next to her, she opened the video. “Let's check the evidence.”
Jane smiled despite her frustration and watched herself on the small screen.
“Like I said before, you're not getting nearly enough height,” Mel said. “It looks like your tap is a little off, but mostly it just looks like you’re not getting enough power to get yourself over the bar in a layout. That usually has something to do with not having enough strength, but you’ve been doing this skill for over a year now, so that’s not it.”
Jane watched the video again. “Ugh, this sucks. It feels normal when I’m doing it, but I just can’t get over the bar.”
“Well, let’s not get too upset about it. Everyone has an off day once in a while. Go get a drink while Alexis finishes her set and then try it once more.”
Alexis finished her three transition skills and Jane went over to the bars. Before jumping up to the high bar, she took a second to close her eyes and go through the sequence of moves in her mind. Nabieva, pak, van Leeuwen, she thought. Feet, up, stretch, catch, flip, catch, up, turn, catch!
She opened her eyes, jumped up, and pulled her body over the bar so that she balanced on her hips. Then she adjusted her grips, cast up to a handstand, and began swinging into the Nabieva.
The sensation of flying thrilled her as she flew down and around the bar, resting her toes between her hands for a split second before shooting her legs up and out. She used every ounce of strength but her toes still grazed the bar as she went over. It wasn’t enough to make her fall, but it slowed her momentum enough that she couldn’t finish the next moves.
Mel checked her watch. “We've got a few minutes left. Go over to the single bar and work on the Nabieva over the pit. We don’t need any broken necks.”
Jane tried the release several more times, but was only able to recatch the bar twice.
“Good job,” Mel said when she had caught the second one. “We’re out of time. Let's move on to beam.”
The rest of practice 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 six large black markers 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. The next step is to write them down. We'll be hanging these on the wall over by the office so that we'll see them and be reminded of them every day.” She passed the markers and poster board around the circle.
Everyone was quiet as they sat down and wrote their goals. When everyone had finished writing Mel asked if anyone wanted to share their goals with the group.
There was a brief pause, and then Alexis spoke up. “I’ll share. 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. “I think those are very achievable goals. Next?”
“I’ve only got one goal, and it’s to go four for four, no falls, no big mistakes,” Heather said.
Mel smiled at her. “Good one, Heather.” 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.”
Mel grinned. “Big goals are the best. Morgan?”
“Placing top ten all-around,” Morgan said. “And also sticking my floor passes.”
“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.”