When was the last time you saw a gymnast standing around doing nothing?
My guess is never. Gymnasts, by nature, have high-revving motors with an inexhaustible supply of fuel. They are always leaping, twirling, floating, landing and looking for more action. Even hummingbirds would tire trying to keep up.
And yet highly-trained, mega-talented gymnasts appear to have a short shelf life in regards to competition. Some participants are gone from the sport before they’re legally old enough to take a drink.
So when you discover someone with the skills, you’ve got to watch them early and often.
There are three young girls who are emerging as talents out of the Paramount Elite Gymnastics club (PEG) in Van Nuys. One is Caitlin Smith, 14, who is considered one of 75 elite gymnasts in the USA — and one of only four in California. The others — Katelyn Searle, 13, and Sophia McClelland, 12 — are not far behind in skill and are equals when it comes to determination and focus.
On the weekend of July 24-26, McClelland, Searle and Smith will journey to Chicago and compete in the 2015 Secret U.S. Classic, the final qualifying event for women’s gymnastics for the P&G Gymnastics Championships which serves as the USA’s national championships. Also taking place is the HOPES Championships on July 24, for athletes trying to eventually earn elite status.
They, and hundreds of others, will try to wow judges from the USA junior and senior national teams as well as college scouts with their ability to soar, spin, and somersault , and perform other high-risk maneuvers in the Sears Centre Arena. It’s a time to shine so brightly even the back rows will require shades. This is where college scholarships can be won or lost. Where the future may hold an Olympics team bid — or not.
Dust off your favorite cliché. “How bad do you want it”, “it takes hard work and sacrifice”, “you’ve got to give it all you got” — all apply. No day of training and practice can be wasted. What can be intellectually absorbed and appreciated may be harder to produce in actuality and practicality.
And yet these three girls, this Sisterhood of the Double Backflip with a Twist, wouldn’t change anything.
“I really enjoy it.,” said McClellend. “It’s not something that I’m making myself do. It’s something I’m choosing to because I love the sport. It’s so much fun.”
All three have been working their way up the preoverbial ladder. This will be Smith’s third trip to the Secret meet, and she is in the best position to climb another rung.
“This year I want to make it to the P&G championships,” she said, which means she would need to place in the top six of her group to participate in that meet in August. “I do understand the hard work it takes to win something like this. Before I thought it would be easy, just do what you’ve been doing. But now I’ve realized you really have to work hard and keep up the good work.”
McClelland and Searle are competing in the HOPES championships. Like Smith, this won’t be their first rodeo, having competed in the event last year. But they, too, feel they are in a better situation in 2015 because their confidence levels have climbed alongside their performance levels.
“I definitely feel more confident this time,” Searle said. “I know what’s gonna happen and I know what the atmosphere is. I know more people. [The first time] we were in front of a big panel of national staff watching, and it was definitely nerve-wracking. But this year I’m more confident, and I’ve grown more.”
“I have a lot more confidence now since I’ve experienced it,” added McClelland. Last year I was totally nervous because I had no idea what I was going into. But this year I know what to expect. … Caitlin, she helped me because she had been there before. She helped me get through it. But I still had to go through it.”
Sarah Korngold, who co-founded PEG four years ago with gymnast and coach Liang Zhao, and helps coach all three girls, is doing all she can to balance expectations and realities for McClellan, Searle and Smith. While pushing and prodding the trio 31 hours a week to keep striving for excellence, she doesn’t want them emotionally weighed down by trying to do and prove things they don’t have to.
“Gymnastics is a really interesting sport because it’s never perfect, never good enough — there’s always something new and harder to learn,” Korngold said. “I don’t feel that they feel that pressure. For them it’s a really great challenge to get themselves better, to get themselves to the next level and try to improve. That is positive.
“We’ve been following the stepping stones that lead you toward the Olympics. Obviously we haven’t been around long enough to reach that yet. But we’ve definitely been taking all the right steps, and have been involved in all the right processes along the way to get there. And it’s really exciting as a staff, as an organization, and for the girls as well, without trying to put that pressure on them. We don’t discuss it day-to-day. We have short-term goals, and if we get closer we’ll discuss it further. I would say it’s a realistic goal, in that they are on that path and they’re moving that way.”
But, as Korngold reminds her visitor, none of the three are qualified for the 2016 Games. Their first shot at an Olympics would be in 2020.
“And that is so far away,” the coach continued. “I want them to enjoy the daily process, and enjoy the benefits they can get out of gymnastics. Hopefully move towards college. And hopefully, in 2020, if they’re still loving it and on that path then we’ll talk about it. But I would hate to put that in their heads now, and something happens and they feel like they failed me or them. There’s so much more to get from the sport than just the Olympics. … I like for them to have big goals, but my job as a coach is to keep them on the short-term, keep them progressing, keep them happy, confident and healthy.”
McClelland, Searle and Smith are all happy, confident and happy. They are all focused on Chicago. The long-term goal — for now — is earning a college scholarship to a NCAA Division I school.
But they are good. They may become great.
We should all be watching.