Claire Thompson is the two-time defending state champion on the balance beam, but learning one specific skill that helped her win those titles took a great deal of work.
The back tuck — a backflip — on the four-inch-wide beam is a skill many gymnasts attempt, but only the best can master. A few of the Columbus East and Columbus North girls can do it and will try it again in tonight’s East Sectional.
Thompson learned the back tuck at an early age. The North senior started on the floor, then went to low beam with mats under it, then the low beam with less mats. She progressed to the high beam with mats, the high beam with less mats and finally, the high beam with only the standard mat.
“It’s a long process of taking away mats and doing it,” Thompson said. “It was really scary at first to do it without mats under the beam. It definitely took me a solid couple weeks to be able to throw it without being scared. But now, I love it.”
So does her good friend and former club teammate, East senior Adi Minor. Minor has the state’s highest score on the beam this season, a school-record 9.9, but the beam hasn’t always come easy for her.
Between her seventh- and eighth-grade years, Minor was doing a back tuck on the beam and landed wrong. She cracked some metatarsals in her left foot and began her eighth-grade year in a walking boot.
“The back tuck itself isn’t too hard,” Minor said. “On beam, it’s just landing it because it’s four inches of wood, and you’re kind of nervous about it. You have some rocky falls here and there, but once you get it consistent, it’s a pretty simple skill.”
Minor’s Olympians teammate, freshman Taylen Lane, sustained almost the exact same injury in the same way. Lane broke her right her seventh grade year landing a back tuck on the beam.
Both Minor and Lane had just started doing back tucks on the beam when they were injured.
“At first, I was pretty scared to do it, but once I did it, it was just like a mind game,” Lane said.
East junior Taylor Gaskill did the back tuck on beam in traning as a club gymnast, but never did it in club competition. She didn’t do it her first two years of high school, but started working it into her routine last summer.
So far this year, she hasn’t fallen when attempting the back tuck.
“Once we started official practice, we took the mats away really quick, and it surprised me how easy it was,” Gaskill said. “It’s not really that hard. Once I got past the fear, it was pretty easy. But it was more mental and letting myself know I could do it.”
Another East gymnast, freshman Elise LaSell, does an aerial cartweel with no hands on the beam.
East coach Nancy Kirshman said to do a back tuck on the beam, a gymnast has to have strong legs. They do it on floor first, then build their way up.
“If you can stand on the floor and back tuck onto something, you can do it on beam,” Kirshman said. “Kids do standing back tucks all the time, so it’s more or less a fear factor. Once you do it, it’s probably easier than doing a back-handspring where your hands have to hit, and then your feet hit.”
Thompson’s teammate at North, junior Tova Edwards, started doing the back tuck on the beam last year. She said it took awhile to get over the fear factor.
“I would always want to do it on the low beams instead of the higher ones,” Edwards said.
North sophomore Sami Heathcote doesn’t do a back tuck, but instead, does a front tuck on the beam. Most gymnasts and coaches say that is more difficult than a back tuck because of the blind landing.
Heathcote started working on the front tuck a year-and-a-half before entering high school.
“I tried to learn a back tuck, but I didn’t really like it,” Heathcote. Technically, the landing is harder since it’s a blind landing, but for me, it’s a lot easier because it’s not as scary.”
Indiana high school gymnastics awards up to eight-tenths of a point in bonus points for skills they call “advanced high superiors.” Any aerial move, including back or front tucks, are worth two-tenths of a point.
But the move is a gamble, especially for gymnasts who haven’t mastered the skill. While it may gain two-tenths of a point if landed, a fall results in a half-point deduction.
“You’re earning two-tenths of bonus, so if the skill is not incredibly stable, it’s not worth risking five-tenths for two-tenths,” North co-coach Sandy Freshour said. “The higher-level kids need to be as close to the 10.0 start value as possible.”
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Columbus East High School
Teams: Columbus East, Columbus North, Bloomington North, Bloomington South, Brebeuf Jesuit, Decatur Central, Franklin Central, Indianapolis Scecina, Martinsville, Owen Valley, Roncalli, Seymour
Advancement: Top three teams and top six individiuals in each individual event and the all-around qualify for the March 3 Connersville Regional