Vail Gymnastics: Always flying
Athletes with year-long season navigate pandemic to push club’s competitive culture forward
The routine is all-too familiar. At least in one sense.
While the wonted 4 p.m. last chair is a customary end for Vail Resort’s day, Julie Cotter’s day is just ramping up. As skiers make their final runs, the Vail Gymnastics Club (VGC) program director and coach waves goodbye to little girls and boys just finishing a recreational session, simultaneously setting up the room for the five-days-a-week, 4:30-8 p.m. practice for her level 7, 8 and 9 team.
“I don’t think people really know how much training goes into gymnastics,” she said. “It’s a dangerous sport, so you have to be committed.”
She can view the marquee mountain across the interstate through the gym’s tall, narrow windows letting in the fading afternoon light. Awareness of the Valley’s notoriety for producing Olympic winter athletes hasn’t prevented this house of young champions from building a competitive culture of their own — one day at a time.
Vail Gymnastics athletes warm-up during Wednesday evening’s training session. | Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily
“I think a lot of people in a ski town don’t really think of gymnastics,” she admitted.
“It just so happens that after eight years in the program, we end up with a really fun, competitive program so the serious gymnast who wants to go all the way to NCAA gymnastics — they can.”
The New Jersey native and former Elite-level gymnast, 2006 Junior Olympic all-around silver medalist and NCAA DI scholarship athlete arrived at VGC, the only developmental program in the county, in 2014 after creating the Ball State University Recreational Gymnastics Program, now 200 athletes strong. By 2019, Samantha Nothnagel had achieved the distinction of becoming the club’s first level 10 gymnast. “She was kind of our first to pave the way,” Cotter said of the now SUNY-Cortland junior who was a level 4 when the coach started.
After over a year of no competitions followed by an abbreviated 2021 season consisting of spectator-less meets in small rooms streamed online, Cotter’s 12-member “optional” team (level 6 and above) pieced together a special 2022 campaign.
“It’s hard to stay invested in a sport like gymnastics; it’s so demanding when you’re being faced with so many restrictions and really very little reward during the pandemic,” she stated.
“Those kids that really hung on and pushed through — I feel like to come out and have so much success this year at the end of their season – it was a real confidence booster.”
Both Naya Rostad, the Colorado Level 7 Senior D State vault champion, and Campbell Vickers will be headed to the Level 7 Region Championship in Plano, Texas, at the end of the month. Level 8 gymnast Ava Knight just wrapped up her region championship in Estes Park last week, placing sixth overall and posting a 9.75 score on bars, good for third place amongst the top athletes from the seven-state quadrant.
“That’s quite a high score,” Cotter said. Nothnagel and her twin sister were the first to go to a level 7 regions back in 2015, but Cotter noted, “We haven’t had a kid perform quite as well as Ava did this past weekend.”
Double life for double flips
Gymnastics is a year-round commitment for Cotter’s level 7, 8 and 9 athletes.
“There’s no off-season for them,” she commented.
In addition to three-and-a-half-hour sessions Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. is blocked off for training every Saturday, too. The competition season runs from September to May. Camps and weight training consume June, July and August.
“That’s really the most important training time of the year for them,” Cotter commented of the summer block typically utilized by athletes to build the strength necessary for moving up levels.
U.S.A Gymnastics Women’s Development Program (WDP) has three segments: developmental (levels 1-3), compulsory (levels 4-5) and optional (levels 6-10). NCAA athletes typically enter DI gymnastics at level 10, with Elite level — people on the Olympic track — being the only higher category. Keep in mind — 2020 Olympic all-around gold medalist Suni Lee is currently a freshman competing at Auburn University, which is to say, the collegiate arena is no joke. Neither is the dedication required to get there.
“You don’t really see your family,” said Battle Mountain 10th-grader Rachel Ozog.
“You wake up, go to school, come here for four hours, then you go home.”
“Some really don’t understand, but I have great friends who are really supportive,” adds Katie Dixon an Eagle Valley High School freshman.
Whereas a sport-specific school like Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy builds practices into the academic day, these gymnasts have to figure out how to eat and do homework once they get home at 8:30 p.m.
“It’s busy, but you kind of just have to find time to do school and everything,” said Tatum Vickers of her routine, which is void of “a normal social life” and includes a lot of late nights. The Battle Mountain sophomore attempts to compartmentalize her two worlds, saying, “When I’m at school, I’m just at school. I just hang out with my friends and have more than gymnastics.” Still, one wonders if it feels like a double life.
“Yeah completely,” eighth-grader Campbell Vickers, Tatum’s younger sister, answers when the question’s posed.
Growing up with a sister who moved through the ranks quickly, developing a reputation — even in middle school — of being the ‘gymnastics girl,’ provided Campbell an easy entrance to the sport. Searching for her own identity was harder.
“I was always known as Tatum’s little sister who didn’t really care for gymnastics and who was in here because of her,” she said.
“I think the fact that I could prove to everyone that I could also be an individual as a gymnast – not just in her shadow – and also do well, is probably (my) biggest reason,” she said, outlining her reason for pursuing success in the sport.
Another motivator for the sisters is a post-competition tradition: steak and a chocolate brownie.
“Like if she fell (off the beam), I go over and say, “At least we get the brownie sundae,” or something like that and it kind of keeps you going,” she described of one of many inside jokes between the teammates. In addition to elevator tag and post-game delicacies, the middle schooler provided a more serious takeaway from the grind, too.
“I like that you put so much into it that when you go to competitions at the end, you really do feel the end product because it finally feels like it all paid off when you throw a good routine together,” she smiled.
Tatum and Campbell Vickers practice their beam routines Wednesday at Vail Gymnastics. | Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily
Knight, in her first full-time season at VGC, concurred, admitting she really doesn’t hate any part of the process.
“I think even if something is hard and frustrating, it’s all worth it in the end,” the 12-year-old said.
Ozog, who also enjoys painting and recently had artwork hanging at Yeti’s Grind, has learned that intertwined with her passion for gymnastics are aspects she isn’t as fond of, but its better to work on those elements “without complaining.”
The global pandemic presented the most challenging hurdle for the club, eliminating group practices for three months and competitions for much longer. The Vickers trained at home, over Zoom and at nearby vacant soccer fields, running and doing “a lot of core.” The uncertainty of when practices and competitions would return weighed heavily on all.
“It was a very stressful year,” Dixon said.
In a sport built on twisting and twirling, the gradual return to ‘normal’ — bogged down by social distancing and masking requirements — was especially tricky to cope with.
“We thought it was going to be impossible,” Cotter stated.
“It was really hard,” added Tatum.
“You had masks and couldn’t be near each other at all. It was anti-social kind of.”
As parents watched their daughters compete via Zoom at nearby coffee shops, the lack of an audience profoundly impacted the aspiring gymnasts.
“It kind of takes away the reward of it because you don’t have people coming in and watching you,” Vickers noted.
“A lot of kids couldn’t even hang on,” said Cotter. “It was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of little girls doing gymnastics.”
Every obstacle made persevering through the trials that much more remarkable. On March 26, the younger Vickers, Ozog and Rostad walked into the Colorado Gymnastics Institute in Aurora for the Level 7 state championships somewhat intimidated by the big stage and bright lights.
“We didn’t think we were going to get anything out of it,” Campbell said with a humorous honesty. Once they settled in, however, it felt like any other day at 4:30.
“We stayed calm; It felt more like practice,” she said.
“We were able to do it. When we found out we made it to regionals, that was pretty big.”
While Knight’s state competition didn’t go as well as she’d hoped, she shined at the more prestigious region meet a few weeks later.
“That was a great meet for me,” she stated with a serious tone belying her age.
“I had a lot more fun and didn’t look ahead. I just kind of went with the flow; I made all my routines, I didn’t doubt myself, I was cheering everyone on in my rotation.”
The seventh-grader already has aspirations to compete for the University of Florida, a roster she knows intimately.
“I love their gymnastics program,” she beamed of her parents’ alma mater (neither played sports in Gainesville).
“I watch their team a lot and look up to a lot of their athletes. It looks like a really fun team to be on.”
While many big dreamers in the sport naturally look up to Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles, the obvious student of the sport pegged Gator Trinity Thomas as her hero. “She’s just a really good role model for me,” Knight said.
“She has pretty lines and I feel like even when she does fall, she just goes to the next event.”
The future physical therapist — she says she could relate to the injuries — and youngest of the bunch keenly presented perhaps the most relevant “why” for all of this.
“Gymnastics — I think it’s about having fun instead of just trying to be perfect,” she said.
“On social media, all you’re going to see is all perfect, everything – you want to be like that – but that’s not reality. You have to just kind of trust the process and know that you’re not going to be perfect 100% of the time and you kind of have to accept if you do something wrong and kind of just redeem yourself at the end.”
Knight said her teammates are “like big sisters to me,” which is good, since much of her life is spent with them. “We have a lot of fun together,” she said.
For Dixon, the team is her favorite part, along with accomplishing goals. Oh, and one other thing:
“It’s always fun to feel like you can fly.”
As the snow melts and Gondola One shuts down for the winter, snowsports enthusiasts will take a break from flying. Across the way, though, another daily routine will continue.
“There’s so many elements that go into it that as you go around and get one new skill, it lights the fire again that might have been put out somewhat,” Campbell said.
“It puts you back on and makes you want more and more.”
Members of Vail Gymnastics practice their routines during an evening training session. | Ryan Sederquist/Vail Daily