At an early morning, pre-semester practice, UAA’s 11-woman gymnastics team was getting ready to kick off their competitive season. With three months of booked weekends looming before them, their strategy for success is to slowly build up their energy level while keeping an eye on their performance peak.
During the pre-practice pep talk _” a ritual for the team _” assistant coach Tami Monette teased the members for only having two women come to train at the optional practices during finals week.
She said humor helps keep the potentially stressful dynamics relaxed and friendly. With 25 years of experience coaching high school and college gymnasts, Monette has learned that the personalities of gymnasts can lead to uncomfortable situations.
“There’s always a lot of drama,” Monette said. She added that gymnasts are perfectionists by nature. She said team members high demands of themselves can lead to higher demands of each other.
“That’s what creates this really tough dynamic sometimes on the gymnastics team,” Monette said. “Because of that, we do a few special things. I don’t know if every athletic team at UAA sits down for 15 minutes each day before it starts and discusses things, but we do.”
Assigning two co-captains to the team also helps alleviate potential drama, because coach Paul Stoklos and Monette said any of the gymnasts can talk to either of the juniors, Tiffany Staton and Amanda Keever.
Sophomore Jessica Portluck, who competed all-around to help the Gold squad to a one-point victory against the Green squad during the Intrasquad Exhibition, thinks the current gymnastics team works together better than last year’s team.
“We get along,” said Portluck. “This year’s a lot better than last year; we had a lot more team drama.”
The team showed no tension during warm-ups, where the gymnasts jumped down a long trampoline and threw layouts and front tucks onto a two-foot-deep mat.
They continued by practicing their jumps and turns while standing in a circle, and talked about everything from movies and immigration to who had eaten what junk food the day before.
Coach Stoklos drew the team’s focus back to the seven gymnasts with their grips chalked and ready for the uneven bars.
“You have to finish every routine you start, so you either make one, or you do three,” said Stoklos. “So Jessica, you should bang this puppy right out. A couple of you should be able to get this.
“Some of you who can’t get through a routine to save yourselves might have a little more trouble with this,” said Stoklos, looking at junior Dominique Ingram.
Most of the gymnasts laughed, clapping their chalk-covered hands together.
“Why are you looking at me?” Ingram said, smiling and moving off with the other gymnasts.
As Stoklos had predicted, Jessica Portlock did her entire bar routine once through with no falls, and moved onto practicing the balance beam. However, others on the team struggled, and several gymnasts groaned as they pushed their bodies up into giants on the uneven bars.
“You lose a lot in three weeks, so we’re pushing them kind of hard,” Stoklos said. “This was designed to be a good reality check for them, and the ones that really care will come away saying, ‘Wow, I’m really in trouble.'”
Stoklos said being too ready means the gymnasts will reach their peak performance level earlier in the season, which might produce a worse showing at post-season competition. Stoklos was reminded of this during the 2005 season, when two gymnasts had falls during the USA Gymnastics Division I National Championships. UAA lost to all 13 teams participating in the competition, which Stoklos attributes to an early peak.
“We peaked and we couldn’t maintain that peak,” said Stoklos. “Coach T (Monette) did a really good job of re-peaking them in time for Nationals, but we still failed. I think it was fatigue; the fatigue level was too high. A couple of key individuals had really bad meets at Nationals.”
Stoklos doesn’t want to repeat the same mistake, so he’s delayed the team’s conditioning until later in the 18-week season.
“It’s a long season,” said Stoklos. “We started coming here the second week of school. It was optional at that time, but by the third week of school we were into official practice, and they’re going to train until the end of March.”
The team got a taste of competition with the Green and Gold Intrasquad December 2005 meet, where they were given realistic scores by the same judges they will see during the 2006 season.
At the Intrasquad meet, the team scored 184 points, which was a little lower than Stoklos had hoped. Usually, the Intrasquad meet gives the gymnasts a preview of their upcoming season, but with losing two gymnasts at the end of fall 2005, the team’s slate of expectations has been wiped clean.
The ex-teammates are freshmen Lindsay Summerhays and Sarah Proctor, whose grade point averages for the fall 2005 semester made them academically ineligible for participation. Jessica Portlock said the loss was hard to take because the women were good, and without them the team was struggling to figure out who was in what events.
“We lost two girls that were supposed to be really good girls on our team,” Portlock said. “They didn’t make grades so we told them off then. Once you don’t make grades, pretty much no one likes you anymore, because we all work so hard and we want to be good, and two of your main players don’t put forth the effort.”
Both Summerhays and Proctor were recruited by Monette during the 2005 USAG Junior Olympics National Championships for their potential to improve the UAA team.
Two of the three remaining freshmen on the team’s 2006 season lineup, Lauren Agostino and Karli Franz, were also recruited at the Junior Olympic Nationals. Walk-on Brooke Nall is the third freshman gymnast on the 11-person team.
“They were good athletes, so it hurts,” Stoklos said. “Lindsay was a strong bar worker, so losing Lindsay hurts us. Sarah was not a strong bar worker, but she was very strong on beam and floor and vault, which means the others are going to have to work a little bit harder, and we’ll do the best we can.”
Despite the fatigue and losing two teammates, Stoklos and the gymnasts are positive about the upcoming season.
“We’re going to do wonderful,” Portlock said while she stretched.
Sophmore Lauren Magiera said starting the season with a home meet on the team’s own equipment and playing to the home crowd was helpful, put more emphasis on the psychological fulcrum of the meet.
“We’re training as hard as we can, it’s pretty much how focused we are,” Magiera said. “It could go either way.”
The women’s next event will be at Seattle Pacific University Jan. 20. The next home competition will be played Feb. 17-18 against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.