Balancing success

Local gymnasts qualify for national competitions

From left: Samantha Keough, Kyra Martone, McKenna Harris, Caitlyn Evangelista and Isabella Nelli pose by the balance beam. These five girls are the level nine Eastern National Qualifiers from Atlantic Coast Gymnastics. (Anthony J. Mazziotti III/The Sun)

Gymnasts have to eat, sleep and breathe the sport. This is something the gymnasts at Atlantic Coast Gymnastics in Williamstown embrace. The dedication to the sport pays dividends as they’ve created a culture of success both in and out of the gym for years.

Last year, Atlantic Coast sent four gymnasts to the national competition. This year, it’s sending six. The winning culture they cultivated is the best part, according to head coach Darlene Blank.

“The younger girls can watch them [the older girls],” she said. “They work so hard, they train hard. They don’t miss a lot of days. It’s good for the young ones to watch and see how far they can go if they keep working hard. Our sport is extremely tough because of how many hours you have to be in here. You can’t do it halfway.”

Gymnasts typically spend four to five hours per night during the week in the gym, in addition to competing over the weekends. Practice runs 50 weeks per year as well, Blank added.

There are 10 levels of gymnastics, with one being on the low-end and 10 being the highest level. Atlantic Coast had five girls qualify for the level nine Eastern National Tournament and one girl qualify for the level 10 National Tournament.

Williamstown’s Caitlyn Evangelista, Kyra Martone and McKenna Harris, Washington Township’s Isabella Nelli and Mays Landing’s Samantha Keough are the five level nine Eastern National qualifiers. Sicklerville’s Sierra Muns is the lone level 10 National qualifier.

At the state level, Nelli was an all around champion, meaning she scored the highest total score in the four events: vault, uneven bars, beam and floor. Keough was the uneven bars champion at the state level.

To qualify for the Eastern National competition, a gymnast needed to finish in the top seven of the regional tournament in her respective division. Nelli finished sixth overall, Evangelista third, Keough fifth, Martone sixth and Harris seventh.

Nelli, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Chestnut Ridge Middle School, said the floor is her favorite event because of the tumbling aspect. She credits her teammates pumping her up, giving her the confidence she needs as one of the reasons she qualified for her first national competition.

“One of the things we say a lot is, ‘Believe in yourself,'” she said. “And I think if we use that quote everybody will do the best they can do at this meet. In regionals, I learned it was important to not give up and set an example for the little girls. This is about perseverance; if you believe in yourself you can do anything.”

Harris, a 15-year-old freshman at Gloucester County Institute of Technology, qualified for the Eastern National competition for the second straight year by overcoming adversity this season.

“This season I’ve been dealing with an injury,” she said as she pointed to her left shoulder. “It’s been ups and downs. I changed a couple routines, but this year I made it to Eastern Nationals. I’m looking forward to knowing what I’m going into this time and doing it better the second time around.”

Martone, a 15-year-old freshman at Gloucester County Institute of Technology, and Keough, a 14-year-old freshman at Cedar Creek High School, are both first-time qualifiers for Eastern Nationals. They believe consistency and confidence are key.

“It’s more about being consistent and hitting four-for-four, all the events,” Keough said. “You put in so much work here and you just want to do the same thing out there. That’s definitely my goal.”

“I want to go in confident and do good for me, not compared to everyone else,” Martone said. “I want to have fun and do better than I have in past meets.”

Uncle Ben Parker from the “Spider-Man” comics famously coined the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and that statement rings true with the national qualifiers from Atlantic Coast Gymnastics. The accolades these girls worked hard for weigh heavy on their shoulders. They are role models for the younger gymnasts – a responsibility they are happy to take on.

Nelli said the relationship between the older and younger gymnasts is similar to that of a big sister and little sister. Evangelista echoed that comparison.

“I remember when I was one of the younger girls and looking up to everybody and thinking I want to be like them, Evangelista said. “I hope I can set the same example for them. This whole gym is one big family. We’re all supportive of each other.”

“I remember being the younger one and looking up to the older girls, but suddenly I became the older girl and role model,” Martone said. “It’s cool because they look at you, they think, ‘Wow, she’s so cool. I want to be like them,’ so then you have to push yourself. When they’re watching you have to show them that they can get here too.”

“You don’t realize how much they look up to us,” Harris added. “They see our crashes, they see when we fall, when we split the beam, when we fall on the floor and don’t catch the bar. They also see us get back up. That’s a big part – they see us struggle but they see us do great things and cheer us on.”

The gymnasts also set an example outside the gym. For example, Evangelista set a goal to earn straight A’s. Muns, the level 10 national qualifier, was missing from practice last week because she was at the DECA national competition in Florida for Timber Creek High School.

“Sierra Muns is a first-year level 10. She did a great job at regionals and qualified to the national championships which is huge. It’s hard because it’s the whole country,” Blank said on Muns’ behalf. “She was second all around. She will represent us at Nationals in Indianapolis. Being a level 10 is much more difficult, it’s the highest level. It’s really great when girls have someone they can look up to and see make the national championships, and hopefully that’s where they’ll be next year.”

Nelli, Evangelista, Harris, Martone and Keough’s competition is set for Kissimmee, Fla., on May 10, 11 and 12, while Muns’ competition will take place in Indianapolis, Ind., on May 18 and 19. Check future issues of The Sun for updates on the gymnasts.