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 which
complemented each facet of her routine.
During an interview during practice on Feb. 20, five days before
she performed her high-scoring routine against George Washington,
Aloi said that for her the floor exercise was simply fun: “I love
performing floor. It allows me to show the performance aspect of
I did theater when I was younger.”
During a taped delayed broadcast of a Southeastern Conference
meet between Florida and Arkansas on ESPN-U from earlier in the
season, former University of Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan, now
an ESPN commentator who coached the Bulldogs to 10 NCAA
titles before her retirement in 2009, said one of the most vital
aspects to a team’s success in gymnastics is team chemistry.
Like many college gymnasts, Williams, of NC State, got her
start at a very, very young age: “When I was little, I jumped around
a lot. My parents got me interested in taking gymnastics in Greensboro
when I was three.”
As gymnasts get into grade school, the sport starts becoming
more competitive, and each gymnast gradually starts to see
the sport as an individual competition, sometimes even against
gymnasts in their own clubs. Aloi cited this as one of the nuanced
obstacles of transforming into a college gymnast: “I competed for
High Point Gymnastics, and there it’s all about the individual,” Aloi
“But now it’s about the team and not just yourself.” This factor poses a challenge for not only college gymnastics coaches, but also Olympic team coaches; thus the need to find a way to re-teach the approach to gymnastics becomes vital.
Team chemistry is something that coach Galvin cites in this
year’s squad: “From a coaching standpoint, we’ve team that
worked well together. But, this team has exceptional chemistry and
Galvin said this process also comes through during the team’s
seemingly vicarious practices, which include rope-climbing and
sit-ups on a medicine ball: “Every gymnast here feels that their
teammates have their backs,” Galvin said.
From his own sideline,
coach Stevenson, whose team was ranked 19th during the week
of Feb. 20th, senses confidence in this year’s Wolfpack gymnasts:
“This team believes in themselves,” Stevenson said. “They’ve
bought into everything we’ve taught them.”
From a conference standpoint, the gymnastics teams at UNC
and North Carolina State differ from their fellow athletes in one
major regard: They do not actually compete in the Atlantic Coast
This is simply because there is only one other regular
current ACC school — the University of Maryland (Pittsburgh will
be an ACC member school starting the fall, and the Panthers also
have a women’s gymnastics team) — which has a gymnastics team.
So, both the Tarheels and the Wolfpack gymnasts compete in the
East Atlantic Gymnastics League, which also includes Rutgers University,
George Washington University, West Virginia University and
the University of New Hampshire.
West Virginia has won the most
EAGL titles with six, but in recent years, both the Tarheels and the
Wolfpack have been collecting EAGL titles amongst themselves.
In fact, since 2005, West Virginia’s 2008 EAGL title has
prevented the two teams from sharing each year’s league crown in
consecutive years. The Wolfpack have five EAGL titles, with the
most recent one being in 2009, and the Tarheels, with four EAGL
titles, are two-time defending conference champions.
This year’s title will be decided at the EAGL Conference Championships in Pittsburgh on March 24. Since there are few nearby schools with gymnastics programs, both teams travel significantly during the year. There are no other college women’s gymnastics team in North Carolina, and the College of William and Mary has the only remaining program for the sport in Virginia.
For their respective meets during the weekend of
March 2, the Tarheels will head north to Penn State University, a
team that the Wolfpack upset during a Feb. 11 meet in Raleigh, in
a meet that will also feature another traditional Big 10 gymnastics
power in the University of Michigan, while the Wolfpack head to
Louisiana State University to face an always strong Tigers team.
Wolfpack gymnast Anna Kronenfeld, a senior majoring in
animal sciences who graduated from the Wesleyan Academy in
Greensboro, said that the delicate balance between her education
and competing in college gymnastics can be daunting: “It is hard,
but we have good tutoring. First, we have class, then we go to
practice, then there is schoolwork. Time management is the key,”
“The workload is harder in college, but I make sure 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 from Fremont, Calif., most of the out-of-state gymnasts from the two schools are from East Coast states including Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey. Coach Stevenson feels that the gymnasts from the Triad have been tremendous assets for the Wolfpack: “The neat thing about them is they are in-state kids. We’ve got some great [gymnastics] clubs here in North Carolina,” Stevenson said.
in-state gymnasts costs us less money and they have a high
desire to win.” Coach Galvin expresses similar sentiment about the
gymnasts from the state on his squad: “We feel like we have good
relationships with coaches around the state,” Galvin said. “We go
and see these gymnasts in action and then we try to see how they
can fit it. We also want to make sure they are good for the school
academically as well.”
Gymnastics is also a very emotionally demanding sport. During
NC State’s quad-team home meet with Kent State, Towson University
and William and Mary, several gymnasts looked fatigued after
finishing their events, especially on the floor. This sport is the rare
one in which the athlete can experience the adrenaline rush that a
bronco bull rider experiences during a rodeo and simultaneously
feel the Peter Pan euphoria of gliding in air like a circus acrobat.
Fallanca from the Wolfpack says that for her this is especially
true on the balance beam, where the gymnasts have to move their
feet well and perform flips with a combination of twists, back
handsprings and lay-outs: “It’s almost unreal. It’s like I’m defying
gravity,” Fallanca says. “It feels like I’m flying_ not many people
get to sense that.”
It is a relatively safe assumption that performing such difficult
maneuvers in a quiet gym during gymnastics practice would pose
enough hurdles, but during meets there is the added element of
trying to concentrate on the balance beam, bars or the vault while
anything from Van Halen to Vivaldi is playing for a competing
gymnast’s floor routine.
During the quad meet, three other gymnasts in three other events
had to concentrate as a Kent State competitor performed her floor
routine to a techno-instrumental version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie
Jean” that would seemingly be very difficult to tune out.
Fallanca says this is something that a gymnast has to continuously
work on: “It’s really difficult to prevent distractions. You have to
focus on you.
And learn to be yourself. I always tell myself when I
perform the balance beam that it’s just me and the beam.”
The beam is an apparatus that Fallanca’s teammate Morgan
Johnson, a junior majoring in management who graduated from
Northwest Guilford High School, cites as being quite stressful: “I
get nervous on the beam no matter what. The beam is only four
inches wide, and that affects my nerves and my concentration.”
For Williams, who generally performs on vault and bars for the
Wolfpack, controlling nerves is also crucial to success on the vault,
which is generally completed in fewer than 10 seconds, as opposed
to the balance beam or floor: “With the vault, I tell myself to punch
the board and flip my body and I also focus on trying to calm
down.” During her high school years when she was competing for
High Point Gymnastics, Aloi would often get home around 9:30
p.m. after a full day of classes at Mount Tabor and then practicing
gymnastics for up to five hours. In college gymnastics, the gymnasts
actually 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 Mohini
Bhardwaj, now age 33, who returned to elite gymnastics and
ultimately ending up competing for the United States Olympics
team in Athens, Greece in 2004, virtually every college gymnast
will close her gymnastics career after her very last college meet.
Thus, for the coach and gymnast alike, the importance is not just
on the sport, but also what comes next.
Coach Stevenson said, “We want to graduate young women so they can be successful in society once they’ve graduated and know how to achieve success. “And, then I like to win.”