Campus Currents

Thrills, Not Spills
Gymnasts like the rush

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Consider the balance beam. Some people—female gymnasts, for instance—think that doing a back flip and landing both feet square on a 4-inch-wide beam is fun.

Not surprisingly, says UNH gymnastics coach Gail Goodspeed, they're the same kind of people who like jumping out of airplanes or going hang gliding. "They enjoy the rush," she says.

"They get personal satisfaction from it. The majority of the athletes who get involved in gymnastics are high risk takers."

In the 2009-2010 season, the team won all its home meets, ended its season with an impressive 11-3 record and advanced to the NCAA regionals at Penn State University. Meets are made up of four events: vault, floor, uneven bars and balance beam. The objective is to complete the routines cleanly. If a gymnast wobbles significantly, or falls, or grabs an apparatus for support, these errors diminish her score. These "major errors" are common enough. What's unusual is when a team can complete all 24 routines without committing one. The risk-taking attitude that is crucial to this sport shows up in the confidence that it takes to land an aerial routine without faltering.

This year, the UNH gymnasts finished 24 consecutive routines without a major error at a meet at Brown University. They repeated the achievement at their final competition at the NCAA Regionals at Penn State, where again the UNH gymnasts went 24-for-24. "To have each individual on the team have their very best performance all on the same day is really almost unheard of," says co-captain Helena Diodati '10.

The scoring is also based on degree of difficulty, and despite a perfect performance, UNH finished fourth at the regionals. They could feel good about that, considering that the top three finishers, Oklahoma, LSU and Penn State, have three of the strongest programs in the country. Chelsea Steinberg '11 finished fourth in the individual all-around and was an alternate to make nationals.

This year's team also succeeded in avoiding major injuries, not a simple feat in a sport with high risk and impact. Goodspeed credits an off-season weight-room program that's gymnasticsspecific. It builds muscles in the core—the arms and shoulders— and it makes for powerful legs that can spring and land safely. It helps, too, that the athletes turn out 45 minutes before practice to have their ankles and wrists taped for support. "In college, we're very aware that our bodies are getting older and that our health comes first," says Keeley Smith '10. "If we're feeling any sort of injury, the coaches urge us to speak up, which is a huge difference from club [elite high school level] gymnastics."

Besides ice and heat for aches and pains, rest is invaluable. Most gymnasts cut back during the summer, and during the season, the team gets two days of rest each week, a day more than athletes in many other sports. Even the practices are designed to minimize stress on the athletes' bodies.

"Practice is really about quality—not quantity," says Steinberg. "It's not about doing high numbers [of repetitions]. It's doing them to the best of your ability."

Gymnasts at this level usually got started at age 4 or 5, and when they leave college, most leave competitive gymnastics behind. Still, it stands to reason that at age 22 or 23, their penchant for risk is alive and well. "I'd love to do surfing, skiing, snowboarding, and try hang gliding or sky diving after gymnastics," says Smith. "Surfing is my must-do. Attempting a sport where you can't control all the elements will be something completely new to me, but I can't wait to try."

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