By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Northborough – They seldom receive the attention or fanfare of their fellow school athletes, make marquee sports headlines or compete before sold-out audiences, but in terms of their sport requiring physical strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and balance, there may be no other high school sport that can equal.
The sport is varsity gymnastics which competes nearly year-round in various venues tackling the likes of vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor competition. The training can be grueling, intense and at times dangerous with injury more common than most may think when considering the sport of gymnastics. No one knows this more than Algonquin Regional High head coach Jennifer Crook, whose 2015-2016 squad is having a stellar season with a record of 5-2 in League competition.
“I always say that if you take 10 kids, all 10 can probably kick a soccer ball but not all 10 can probably walk on their hands for 10 seconds,” said Crook, who is assisted by Crystal Brissett. “Gymnastics is a lot of hours, a lot of repetition and a lot of hard work. We practice five days a week and we have a meet every week in addition to that so we’re together six days a week. It definitely takes a lot of commitment.
“There can be a lot of over-use injuries, not so much accidental injuries because they practice those so much and learn to be safe with what they’re doing, but as far as wear and tear on the body, absolutely. These girls are icing for the last 15 minutes of every practice. It takes a toll on the body for sure.”
A typical high school meet consists of balance beam, floor, vault and uneven bars. The balance beam, just four inches wide, is where gymnasts display intensity and immense concentration in performing their routine. The risk of injury may be highest of all events. Floor competition showcases athletes’ poise, grace and coordination to music chosen to choreograph the performance.
The uneven bars require agility, dexterity and intense concentration while the vault consists of a gymnast racing across the floor at breakneck speed and launching high off a springboard up and over the vault with various flips and turns in the process.
Four Tomahawk athletes, all seniors, recently described the rigors of high school gymnastics.
“It definitely takes a lot of physical ability because we practice for hours,” said Allie Wickham. “It can be as much as 30 hours a week but I think the mental aspect is just as demanding if not more. It’s really easy to get inside your head and be afraid of doing something you’ve done like a million times. Just one time going wrong can really affect you.”
“This sport takes all your full body strength. It’s really amazing,” explained Sarah Baptiste. “You have to condition your whole body and build strength. You have to listen to your coach and do every pull-up and every sit-up which will count towards the strength needed to do everything and so you have to practice and don’t let the mental aspect get to you. You just have to do it because you know if you do it, your fear will be gone.”
Despite the individuality of gymnastics, the sport is clearly team-oriented, say players and coaches. Not only do athletes cheer their own teammates but so for other teams as well due to the widespread respect for gymnasts and the intensity involved where respect flows across team boundaries.
“We’re really known for our cheering, even for other teams,” said Wickham. “I have so many friends from club that are on other teams like Shrewsbury so I’d be cheering for them. Everybody just cheers for everybody so it’s really different than most sports.”
“It’s such a great feeling when you’re up there,” agreed Kerry Luiso. “I have to go last on every event and I’m tired a lot but it’s so helpful to have my team there cheering and telling you that you can do it.
“Gymnastics is practice, practice, practice and hours of commitment doing the same things over and over again until you perfect the routine. It’s not like other sports where you just play together but here you have to do all the right things to make yourself better. It’s a mental sport as much as anything.”
Perhaps no one appreciates teammate support more than Kiara Sears who began training on the beam just a few weeks ago and is now competing for her team. Doing routines on a narrow beam, about four inches wide, takes incredible focus and concentration, she said.
“I’ve worked pretty hard to get my routine down so I could compete. It’s really difficult because it’s scary. If I’m not having a good warm-up or anything and I go out there and know that they’re going to be cheering for me and that they’ll cheer really loud, it’s a big confidence boost. It helps a lot to know that your teammates are cheering for you.”
As the season winds down, perhaps no one appreciates the commitment and hard work as well as mutual support of these Tomahawk girls more than Crook who is in her second year as head coach.
“We have 10 returning members and 10 new members,” she said. “The underclassmen really look up to the older girls, and the upperclassmen do a great job of helping and encouraging the younger girls. There is a great sense of respect between the girls on the team, in true Algonquin form.”
Members of the 2015-2016 Algonquin Regional High varsity gymnastics team are seniors Sarah Baptiste, Sarah Briggs, Laura Jacobs, Courtney King, Kerry Luiso, Kiara Sears and Allie Wickham as well as junior Sam Brazeau. Sophomores include Paige Albers, Julia Callaghan, Sorine Cvitkovich, Erin O’Reilly and Emma Rosen who are joined by freshmen Cecilia Arcona, RaiAnn Bu, Taylor Fenerty, Leanne Hart, Tessa McAndrews, Katelyn Reynolds and Michaela Selig.