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 congratulated 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 consecutive strong flips, was performed to upbeat violin music which complemented each facet of her routine.
“They support each other in rough days as well as in easy days.”
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 my personality.
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 said. “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 strong commitment.” 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 Conference.
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,” Kronenfeld said.
“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.
“Recruiting 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.”