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A balancing act

Atlantic Coast gymnasts qualify for Eastern National Championships

Williamstown Middle School eighth-grader McKenna Harris practices on a balance beam at Atlantic Coast Gymnastics in Williamstown. Harris was one of four gymnasts at Atlantic Coast to qualify for the Eastern National Championships in May. Photo: Krista Cerminaro, The Sun.

By Krista Cerminaro

The gymnasts at Atlantic Coast Gymnastics in Williamstown are dedicated, to say the least.

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“It’s a year-round sport, which is what makes it so difficult,” head coach Darlene Blank said. “That’s including when they have school and stuff, then competitions on the weekend. So the girls have to be very dedicated. They don’t miss a lot of practice, because our sport is timing, and so you really need to be here to maintain. But the girls train very hard, and like I said, you don’t really get much time off during the year.”

That’s why it’s no surprise four gymnasts, who recently competed in regionals, have qualified to compete in the Eastern National Championships from May 3 to May 5 in Rochester, N.Y., where they’ll compete against gymnasts from all over the eastern part of the country.

“With all the after-school activities, it’s very difficult, but they find time. And, most of the kids are straight-A students,” Blank noted. “It can be very crazy — especially during season — so they do a great job.”

Blank explained the gymnasts train in the summer, and their season runs from December through May.

“This year, states was in March, and they did very well,” Blank explained. “All of them qualified through to the regional championships, which were held in Maryland, and four of the young ladies qualified to the Eastern National Championships, which is the last meet for them.”

The gymnasts are separated into two groups, which range from levels one through 10. Levels one through five are considered compulsory gymnasts, meaning each child does the exact same routine. Levels six through 10 — or “optional” — means each gymnast has their own routine and music.

Optional level gymnasts train 20 hours a week, 50 weeks out of the year, according to Blank.

Among the qualifying gymnasts is McKenna Harris of Williamstown. Harris, a regional uneven bars, balance beam and all-around champion, is also involved with the National Junior Honor Society at Williamstown Middle School, as member and secretary, a 2017 WMS People’s Choice Award recipient, a 2018 Gloucester County Education Association “She-ro” Award recipient, among much more.

“Aside from the skills that they learn out there — because they do learn some really cool things — I think, as a parent, it’s neat to see the kids with their time management, their discipline, their mental toughness. I mean, it takes a lot to stand on a four-inch beam, four feet in the air and go backwards and flip, with no hands — and hope that you’re going to hit. They fall off the beam often, they’ve had beam burns down their leg — they get back up and they continue. If it happens in the middle of a meet, you continue on. So, they’ve learned to persevere through a lot — perseverance is big. But, those same life skills carry over in school. They carry over in day-to-day life,” Harris’ mom, Val Harris, explained. “I don’t ever have to ask, ‘is your homework done?’ They’re driven.”

Along with her daughter McKenna, gymnasts Sierra Muns, Shaina Rosenblum and RaeAnna Schutz will also be competing in the Eastern National Championship.

Harris’ mother noted the girls’ devotion to the sport is apparent. Between countless hours spent practicing and sacrificing other aspects of their social lives, the girls do it because they ultimately want to be there.

“It’s a choice for them. There’s a lot of times that they miss things — birthday parties, school dances. We’ve had some where their school dance fell on the night of a regional meet. You’ve practiced all year for this regional meet, you make a choice,” Harris continued. “It’s usually the kids that are pushing ‘no, I can’t miss, I don’t want to miss.’ They’ll take their conditioning sheets with them if they go on vacation and that’s what you’ll find them doing.”

“A lot of these kids are looking forward to moving up to the next level, or competing in college someday, so that is their goal,” Blank said.

Williamstown fifth grader Sophia Ambrose was among the gymnasts who finished in eighth place all around at the NJ State Championship and Williamstown Middle School, and seventh grader Caitlyn Evangelista and St. Mary’s School eighth grader Kyra Martone were both regional qualifiers.

“It’s a tough sport — definitely a tough sport — but it’s neat to see them thrive from all levels,” Harris said.

Additionally, Harris commended Blank, along with assistant coaches Erin Lynch and Jason Douglass, for their dedication to the sport as well.

Despite the challenges that come along with gymnastics, such as the lack of downtime and the risk of injuries, the bond the Atlantic Coast gymnasts share with one another makes it all worthwhile.

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