Triad gymnasts go big time

Kristin Aloi was a standout student at Mount Tabor High School in Winston-Salem, finishing as class valedictorian in 2010. While in high school, she also acted in the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, but she had another passion besides the stage, one which ultimately became her main extracurricular activity.

Aloi is a gymnast, and a very solid one. She is now competing for UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is a sophomore majoring in psychology. On the night of Friday, Feb. 24, in front of 1,223 people, during a home meet against George Washington University, Aloi tied her personal best score on the floor exercise with a 9.875. She then completed a solid vault with a 9.85, topping her previous best score of 9.775. In gymnastics, a 10.0 is considered a perfect score.

Aloi is one of six gymnasts from the Triad who this year are competing with UNC- Chapel Hill and NC State University. Aloi is the lone Tarheel gymnast from the Triad, though the team’s roster has four other gymnasts from North Carolina. For the Wolfpack, there are five gymnasts from the Triad, and seven overall in-state gymnasts.

As Aloi was having a remarkable night in Chapel Hill, her fellow Mount Tabor classmate Hannah Fallanca, also a sophomore who is now a Wolfpack gymnast, was finding success on both the balance beam and the vault during the stormy night outside Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

In her black leotard with red stripes, Fallanca started off with a fluid run to the vault apparatus, and within a precious few seconds, she made a focused leap followed by a solid kick and effective landing during the meet. She was then quickly congratulated by her fellow Wolfpack gymnast and coach Mark Stevenson, now in his 33rd year. Fallanca’s score was a 9.825.

One of those fellow Wolfpack gymnasts who congratualted Fallanca was Alex Williams, who attended Grimsley High School in Greensboro. The senior preceded Fallanca in coach Stevenson’s vault line-up. Williams had a slightly sharper vault than Fallanca which was coupled with a near-perfect landing. She then got a career-high 9.875 for her effort.

Some 30 miles away on the UNC campus, coach Derek Galvin is his 31st year as the coach of the Tarheels. A few days prior to the meet with George Washington, Galvin was feeling enthusiastic about Aloi’s progress with floor exercise routine.

“Her floor routine has a wonderful balance of artistic grace, seen in the dance and choreography and athletic power that is displayed in the tumbling skills,” Galvin said. “The performance quality of her floor-exercise routine is outstanding and it has continued to get stronger as the competition season progresses.”

A floor routines is usually choreographed to music that suits the gymnast’s individual personality, which means it is possible to hear anything from Van Halen to Vivaldi. On a YouTube video filmed during a 2011 meet, Aloi performed her floor routine to a slightly different music selection than the norm. Her floor exercise, consisting of several con-

“They support each other in rough days as well as in easy days.”

secutive strong flips, was performed to upbeat violin music whichcomplemented each facet of her routine.

During an interview during practice on Feb. 20, five days beforeshe performed her high-scoring routine against George Washington,Aloi said that for her the floor exercise was simply fun: “I loveperforming floor. It allows me to show the performance aspect ofmy personality.

I did theater when I was younger.”During a taped delayed broadcast of a Southeastern Conferencemeet between Florida and Arkansas on ESPN-U from earlier in theseason, former University of Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, nowan ESPN commentator who coached the Bulldogs to 10 NCAAtitles before her retirement in 2009, said one of the most vitalaspects to a team’s success in gymnastics is team chemistry.

Like many college gymnasts, Williams, of NC State, got herstart at a very, very young age: “When I was little, I jumped arounda lot. My parents got me interested in taking gymnastics in Greensborowhen I was three.”As gymnasts get into grade school, the sport starts becomingmore competitive, and each gymnast gradually starts to seethe sport as an individual competition, sometimes even againstgymnasts in their own clubs. Aloi cited this as one of the nuancedobstacles of transforming into a college gymnast: “I competed forHigh Point Gymnastics, and there it’s all about the individual,” Aloisaid.

“But now it’s about the team and not just yourself.”This factor poses a challenge for not only college gymnasticscoaches, but also Olympic team coaches; thus the need to find away to re-teach the approach to gymnastics becomes vital.

Team chemistry is something that coach Galvin cites in thisyear’s squad: “From a coaching standpoint, we’ve team thatworked well together. But, this team has exceptional chemistry andstrong commitment.”Galvin said this process also comes through during the team’sseemingly vicarious practices, which include rope-climbing andsit-ups on a medicine ball: “Every gymnast here feels that theirteammates have their backs,” Galvin said.

From his own sideline,coach Stevenson, whose team was ranked 19th during the weekof Feb. 20th, senses confidence in this year’s Wolfpack gymnasts:“This team believes in themselves,” Stevenson said. “They’vebought into everything we’ve taught them.”From a conference standpoint, the gymnastics teams at UNCand North Carolina State differ from their fellow athletes in onemajor regard: They do not actually compete in the Atlantic CoastConference.

This is simply because there is only one other regularcurrent ACC school — the University of Maryland (Pittsburgh willbe an ACC member school starting the fall, and the Panthers alsohave a women’s gymnastics team) — which has a gymnastics team.So, both the Tarheels and the Wolfpack gymnasts compete in theEast Atlantic Gymnastics League, which also includes Rutgers University,George Washington University, West Virginia University andthe University of New Hampshire.

West Virginia has won the mostEAGL titles with six, but in recent years, both the Tarheels and theWolfpack have been collecting EAGL titles amongst themselves.In fact, since 2005, West Virginia’s 2008 EAGL title hasprevented the two teams from sharing each year’s league crown inconsecutive years. The Wolfpack have five EAGL titles, with themost recent one being in 2009, and the Tarheels, with four EAGLtitles, are two-time defending conference champions.

This year’stitle will be decided at the EAGL Conference Championships inPittsburgh on March 24.Since there are few nearby schools with gymnastics programs,both teams travel significantly during the year. There are no othercollege women’s gymnastics team in North Carolina, and the Collegeof William and Mary has the only remaining program for thesport in Virginia.

For their respective meets during the weekend ofMarch 2, the Tarheels will head north to Penn State University, ateam that the Wolfpack upset during a Feb. 11 meet in Raleigh, ina meet that will also feature another traditional Big 10 gymnasticspower in the University of Michigan, while the Wolfpack head toLouisiana State University to face an always strong Tigers team.

Wolfpack gymnast Anna Kronenfeld, a senior majoring inanimal sciences who graduated from the Wesleyan Academy inGreensboro, said that the delicate balance between her educationand competing in college gymnastics can be daunting: “It is hard,but we have good tutoring. First, we have class, then we go topractice, then there is schoolwork. Time management is the key,”Kronenfeld said.

“The workload is harder in college, but I makesure to schedule time for each thing I need to do.”For both coaches, recruiting in North Carolina is a priority,and though one gymnast from UNC, Maura Masatugu is fromFremont, Calif., most of the out-of-state gymnasts from the twoschools are from East Coast states including Virginia, Marylandand New Jersey. Coach Stevenson feels that the gymnasts from theTriad have been tremendous assets for the Wolfpack: “The neatthing about them is they are in-state kids. We’ve got some great[gymnastics] clubs here in North Carolina,” Stevenson said.

“Recruitingin-state gymnasts costs us less money and they have a highdesire to win.” Coach Galvin expresses similar sentiment about thegymnasts from the state on his squad: “We feel like we have goodrelationships with coaches around the state,” Galvin said. “We goand see these gymnasts in action and then we try to see how theycan fit it. We also want to make sure they are good for the schoolacademically as well.”

Gymnastics is also a very emotionally demanding sport. DuringNC State’s quad-team home meet with Kent State, Towson Universityand William and Mary, several gymnasts looked fatigued afterfinishing their events, especially on the floor. This sport is the rareone in which the athlete can experience the adrenaline rush that abronco bull rider experiences during a rodeo and simultaneouslyfeel the Peter Pan euphoria of gliding in air like a circus acrobat.

Fallanca from the Wolfpack says that for her this is especiallytrue on the balance beam, where the gymnasts have to move theirfeet well and perform flips with a combination of twists, backhandsprings and lay-outs: “It’s almost unreal. It’s like I’m defyinggravity,” Fallanca says. “It feels like I’m flying_ not many peopleget to sense that.”It is a relatively safe assumption that performing such difficultmaneuvers in a quiet gym during gymnastics practice would poseenough hurdles, but during meets there is the added element oftrying to concentrate on the balance beam, bars or the vault whileanything from Van Halen to Vivaldi is playing for a competinggymnast’s floor routine.

During the quad meet, three other gymnasts in three other eventshad to concentrate as a Kent State competitor performed her floorroutine to a techno-instrumental version of Michael Jackson’s “BillieJean” that would seemingly be very difficult to tune out.Fallanca says this is something that a gymnast has to continuouslywork on: “It’s really difficult to prevent distractions. You have tofocus on you.

And learn to be yourself. I always tell myself when Iperform the balance beam that it’s just me and the beam.”The beam is an apparatus that Fallanca’s teammate MorganJohnson, a junior majoring in management who graduated fromNorthwest Guilford High School, cites as being quite stressful: “Iget nervous on the beam no matter what. The beam is only fourinches wide, and that affects my nerves and my concentration.”

For Williams, who generally performs on vault and bars for theWolfpack, controlling nerves is also crucial to success on the vault,which is generally completed in fewer than 10 seconds, as opposedto the balance beam or floor: “With the vault, I tell myself to punchthe board and flip my body and I also focus on trying to calmdown.” During her high school years when she was competing forHigh Point Gymnastics, Aloi would often get home around 9:30p.m. after a full day of classes at Mount Tabor and then practicinggymnastics for up to five hours. In college gymnastics, the gymnastsactually have shorter practices that can last up to three hours,though each gymnast likely needs more time to study.

With very few exceptions, such as former UCLA gymnast MohiniBhardwaj, now age 33, who returned to elite gymnastics andultimately ending up competing for the United States Olympicsteam in Athens, Greece in 2004, virtually every college gymnastwill close her gymnastics career after her very last college meet.Thus, for the coach and gymnast alike, the importance is not juston the sport, but also what comes next.

Coach Stevenson said, “Wewant to graduate young women so they can be successful in societyonce they’ve graduated and know how to achieve success.“And, then I like to win.”