Shelby Lum / Lantern photographer
Qualifying to the NCAA Gymnastics Championships this season was bittersweet for juniors Sarah Miller and Melanie Shaffer.
The two were grateful for the opportunity to represent the Ohio State women’s gymnastics team and compete among the nation’s best collegiate gymnasts, Miller on the balance beam and Shaffer as an all arounder. However, the duo traveled there this year without their team who qualified last season, and facing the challenge of competing as individuals was harder than expected.
Miller and Shaffer headed out to Los Angeles April 17 with coach Carey Fagan and assistant coaches Meredith Yonushonis and Bill Lorenz.
Both gymnasts felt prepared heading into podium training on April 18, and Fagan felt that the session went really well.
“They both had been on podium before. The beam was a bit wobbly, but they made easy adjustments during practice,” Fagan said.
Going into the April 19 preliminary competition, both the competitors and Fagan were excited, but the feel was different without having the rest of the Buckeyes there together. Fagan said that the championship is set up for a team competition which made it a little tougher on individual competitors who are used to having their teammates support.
Shaffer began the competition on balance beam and hit a solid routine with just a minor error on her dismount.
Miller had to wait nearly two hours before she was able to compete her one and only event of the day: balance beam.
Waiting to compete was not the only challenge for Miller, though. While rotating with the two-time defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, she was without the luxury of having her entire coaching staff and team with her.
“Not having the coaches there did a lot for me, usually it’s everybody in one place at one time, it’s a different dynamic,” Miller said. “It was kind of just me, by myself.”
Miller did her best not to break focus, but she could not help wanting to look over and watch her teammate.
“She had started before I did, so I was standing there kind of watching her (Shaffer),” Miller said. “It definitely had an impact on me, I was trying to relax but I wanted to cheer for her at the same time.”
Once Miller mounted the beam it was apparent that she had been affected by the unusual coincidence of her and Shaffer competing simultaneously. Miller, who has been the model of consistency on balance beam this season, wobbled on her first skill in the routine, a switch leap. The switch leap is normally connected to two other skills, fulfilling a requirement that each gymnast must complete on beam.
“I was going through my mind like ‘I need a leap connection, what do I do?’ So I tried the straddle jump back pike and that didn’t go well,” Miller said. “I was definitely flustered at what had happened because I had never had that happen before.”
After a fall on the back pike, Miller omitted one of her last skills in the routine that was not required and finished the set with a clean full turn and stuck dismount.
“She never fully recovered from the first mistake,” Fagan said. “I’ve never seen her do that in practice or competition this season, so she was sort of in new waters at that point, as in salvaging the routine. It was disappointing, but we learn from that experience, we need to be able to anticipate mistakes like that.”
Miller did not have the competition she had hoped to have, but did not let it stop her from staying positive and cheering on Shaffer who still had two events to go.
“I was trying really hard to not get upset because Mel still had more events and I was still there for her. She (Yonushouis) was like ‘you can be upset’ and I was like ‘no I can’t, that’s not what this experience is about,'” Miller said.
Shaffer had completed routines on both beam and floor already, then headed to vault where she hit once again. Her last event up was the uneven bars, her weakest event.
“I hit a 9.825 on bars which is amazing for me, especially at nationals,” Shaffer said. “I was really happy with myself.”
Fagan was also happy with Shaffer.
“I was pleased with her demeanor. No matter what meet we are competing at she performs to her highest level, and that’s what she did at NCAAs,” Fagan said.
Although Fagan was pleased with Shaffer’s outcome, she was not in the same mindset regarding the entire outcome of the meet.
“I’d be lying if to say that we weren’t disappointed, because it’s not at all what we hoped to accomplish in California. It’s disappointing only because both of the athletes were completely capable of being an All-American,” Fagan said. “With Sarah it was kind of like ‘whoa, what just happened’ and with Melanie it was not in the performances but the scores. I don’t think she (Shaffer) has been rewarded for her hard work.”
Despite the final outcome, Fagan she said the experience reinforces that the overall feel of the championships is completely different with individuals.
All three said that being there as individual competitors has given them even more motivation to work towards qualifying as a team again in 2014.
“I’m going to use this to motivate the whole team to go next year and motivate myself,” Shaffer said. “And I want all our freshman this year, who haven’t got to experience NCAAs, to get there.”
“Going in as seniors, they’re going to be relying on us,” Miller said. “It’s going to be our motivation that gets them there. It’s so much more fun with your team and I want so badly for this team to get to experience it.”