KSU senior gymnasts prep for life without the sport
For many student-athletes, college is one step closer to playing professionally. For gymnastics, there is no “going pro.” College is as professional as it gets.
Kent State’s gymnastics team has won multiple Mid-American Conference regular season titles and championships, appeared at NCAA Regionals and, in 2011, made it to the NCAA Championship for the first time.
Its returning seniors — Erin Rothrock, Jaimee Caldwell, Rachel Goldenberg and Brianna Skiffington — have one last season to compete as gymnasts. The four have been together for four years and, after placing second at the 2012 MAC Conference Championship, they’re looking ahead to the NCAA Championships. They’re hoping to still finish their careers as champions.
“Last year’s seniors definitely would’ve given up on us by now,” sophomore Mary Lou Renzi said of the current seniors’ dedication to improving the team.
Of the 24 total team routines, the seniors only account for five spots. While they could easily worry about only their
routines, Renzi and freshman Whitnee Johnson say the seniors instead focus on helping their teammates.
“They put everything they have into those other 19 routines,” Johnson said. “They put in everything they need to [in order] to help everyone else succeed.”
Erin Rothrock became a dancer at age 3. Two years of onstage cartwheels and handstands during dance routines, her parents realized she might be better suited for gymnastics.
Growing up in York, Pa., Rothrock reached competition Level 10 — the most advanced level prior to Olympic status — by seventh grade and competed there until she graduated from York Catholic High School in 2008.
Now, she celebrates her last season as part of the Kent State’s gymnastics team and her last season as a competing gymnast.
Rothrock’s senior year follows a junior year largely spent on the sidelines after she tore her ACL and meniscus in pre-season.
Rothrock still attended practices and meets as part of the team. Although she never contemplated quitting, sitting out her junior year meant Rothrock had to watch from afar as her team went to the NCAA Championships for the first time in its history.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said of not being able to compete. “But with them making nationals, I was happy I could be a part of it. It wasn’t like I was out forever.”
Hoping to come back this season and leave with a MAC Championships win, Rothrock said placing second was “definitely disappointing,” but made her work harder to win a spot in the NCAA Championships.
“It put a sour note on the year,” she said, “but it also made us say ‘You know what, that’s not how we want our senior year to end, so we’re going to go attack it that much more at regionals.’”
The team will enter Saturday’s NCAA Regionals as the fifth seed, and the Flashes need to place in the top two in order to advance to the NCAA Championships.
“Last year, we went in as the sixth seed and came out in the top two, so anything is possible,” she said.
Her last semester will be Fall 2012, where she’ll get her first taste of “living the life of a normal college student,” free of five-hour practices, but for the first time apart from the teammates who turned into her second family.
“In high school, I had friends … but friendships with these guys are totally different,” Rothrock said of her fellow seniors.
Although she hasn’t fully decided on a career path, Rothrock is majoring in human movement with a minor in coaching, and she hopes to return to college gymnastics as a coach.
“I loved my experience here, so that would be what I want to do, but people stay coaching college gymnastics forever,” she said. “You either have an opening or you don’t.”
Growing up just outside Cincinnati, Jaimee Caldwell was a cheerleader until she was 8, when her friend introduced her to gymnastics during a “free friend day” at Queen City Gymnastics. Caldwell signed up that day.
She began competing after a year in recreation league and progressed until she reached Level 10 her sophomore year in high school, where she stayed until she graduated from Sycamore High School in 2008.
Caldwell’s offer from Kent State came with one of the gymnastics team’s 12 full-ride scholarships and what she felt would be a good team fit for her. Her coach at Queen City Gymnastics had become almost a second dad to her and her teammates became family, and she felt the same attitude at Kent State.
“When I met all the coaches here and all the girls, it seemed exactly like my club gym,” she said. “It just fit. It just seemed right.”
Since her freshman year, Caldwell has transitioned from competing mostly on balance beam to solely on the uneven bars.
That’s the event she performed on during this year’s MAC Championship March 24, when the team placed second.
“We really were the better team, but the judging didn’t show it,” she said. “Being our last year, we definitely wanted to go out with a win.”
The team will have a chance to make up for it in Saturday’s NCAA Regionals. A top two finish will send them to the NCAA Championships for the second year in a row.
“Obviously we’re the fifth seed, so teams are ranked higher than us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Caldwell said. “We got better as the season went on, so we’re at the peak of our season right now. We can beat those other teams if we do what we need to do.”
Despite her time as a competitive gymnast being nearly over, she isn’t straying far from the sport just yet.
She’s majoring in organizational communication, but after her August graduation, Caldwell will be returning home as a coach at her old gym until she decides where her future career lies.
Caldwell will leave the team she’s come to count on for the past four years, but they’ll be what she thinks of most when she reminisces on her time at Kent State.
“It’s so weird to think about if we would’ve never come here, we wouldn’t know each other,” Caldwell said of the other seniors. “[Now] we’re best friends.”
By the time Brianna Skiffington started competing at age 3, her two older sisters were already practiced gymnasts. She competed in Level 10 gymnastics for five years, appearing at nationals five times before graduating from New Jersey’s Rancocas Valley Regional High School in 2008.
After being a competing gymnast almost her entire life, Skiffington is one of the four seniors in the midst of the last months of their careers.
Skiffington knew by the end of her junior year of high school she wanted to be a Kent State gymnast. Her only official college visit was to Kent State, where she was offered a full-ride scholarship and immediately accepted.
“I loved everything about it,” she said of her first reaction to Kent State.
Nine meets into Skiffington’s junior season, she landed incorrectly during a floor routine, tearing all the tendons and ligaments in both ankles and forcing her to compete solely on beam.
“I could’ve stopped because my ankles were not greatly functional, but I [did rehab] so I could compete in the championship,” she said.
After two weeks of therapy, she finished the season with two top-three finishes, reached her career-high score on beam twice more and competed in the team’s first ever NCAA Championship appearance.
Like the rest of the seniors, Skiffington hoped to end her senior year by winning the MAC Championship.
“There’s no other team that could beat us once we start doing what we need to do,” she said before the meet.
After Kent State’s second-place finish behind Central Michigan, Skiffington and her teammates are deciding to put all they have into performing well at NCAA Regionals.
“I think we’re all not going to dwell on how we didn’t win MACs,” Skiffington said.
She will finish her major in exercise science and minor in psychology in May, when she graduates with Goldenberg. She’ll be returning home to attend graduate school at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. There she’ll work toward a master’s in occupational therapy, leaving her time as a gymnast behind her.
“It could change,” she said, “but right now I feel like I need a solid break from gymnastics.”
When Rachel Goldenberg was 3, she was already on a gymnastics club team. By 6, she was competing. At 8, she was on a formal team at Central Bucks Gymnastics near her home in Doylestown, Pa.
By the time she graduated from Central Bucks West High School, Goldenberg had competed for four years at Level 10, making it to regionals each year.
She first caught the eye of Kent State recruiters the summer after her junior year in high school, when the then-assistant coach came to scout one of her teammates.
“I think it’s funny that I had never heard of [Kent State] before, then he comes here to recruit another girl and I ended up coming,” Goldenberg said.
She was out much of her sophomore year after she tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in her right knee in the first meet of the season.
Since then, Goldenberg has fractured her wrists and now has to wear wrist braces during practice and meets. Despite that, she has continued to improve into her senior year, earning MAC Specialist of the Week honors for a second and third time.
Losing to Central Michigan for the third year in a row wasn’t where Goldenberg hoped to be at the end of her senior year.
“I felt like … there was no way anyone else would beat us,” she said of MAC Championships. “… I knew we all wanted to go out the last year with a win.”
However, Kent State’s gymnastics team is the fifth seed in this year’s NCAA Regionals pool, one spot higher than last year. The seniors hope to repeat last year’s appearance at the NCAA Championships.
“We’re going to go in [to regionals] thinking whatever can happen will happen,” Goldenberg said. “That’s how we went [into] last year’s, so you never know what’s going to happen.”
Goldenberg, a human movement major with an entrepreneurship minor, will be graduating in May, just two weeks after the NCAA Championship, and moving to Ocean City, N.J. to accept a job as a personal trainer and fitness instructor.
Until then, she’s enjoying the last few weeks with her teammates before her time at Kent State comes to a close.
“I’m definitely going to miss the team aspect — having so many girl friends around when I need them,” she said. “It’s like a bunch of sisters … We’re kind of forced to be so close, but you don’t have that kind of relationship with your friends outside [of gymnastics].”