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Last all-around state champs from North, East recall victories

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ROBIN Loheide Sweany remembers feeling dizzy the day of the 1988 IHSAA Gymnastics State Finals.

The former Columbus North standout had been in a car accident the previous night and hit her head on the steering wheel. But that didn’t stop her from claiming her second all-around championship the next day.

“I was a little dizzy,” Loheide Sweany said. “I remember that when I was tumbling.”

That all-around title would be the last for North heading into today’s state finals at Ball State. Columbus East has had two all-around winners since then — Julie Houston in 1998 and Nikki Howe Devers in 2001.

Veteran coaches Nancy Kirshman, who is in her 41st year at East, and Sandy Freshour, who is in her 27th season at North, have theories as to why it’s been so long since they’ve had an all-around champ.

“It’s tough,” Kirshman said. “Injury runs its gamut. You don’t generally come around someone who is strong in all four disciplines. One weakness can count you out pretty easily. It’s timing. It’s just a special individual that can hit on that day. It’s a lot of pressure to be able to hit on all four events at one time.”

“I think the skills have increased, and the level of gymnastics has increased,” Freshour said. “It takes a very unique and special kid to A, have the skills, and B, hit and execute every skill.

“National Federation has increased the difficulty to have a routine that is complete and starts from a 10.0. Kids that are qualified are going to have significant club background and club experience.”

Many of the current Bull Dogs and Olympians have that, including North sophomore Katrina May and freshman Ashley Holliday and East freshman Becca Bryan. They could be in the mix for all-around titles down the road, if not today.

“We’ve had a lot of kids come close, just nobody that quite made it,” Freshour said. “We have a couple of potential kids in Katrina and Ashley. They have all the skills in their routines, so they have the potential to be all-around champions.”

“We’ve had other gymnasts who are skilled, and one right now is Becca Bryan,” Kirshman said. “She’s very skilled on beam and floor. She does a good job on vault, and bars hasn’t been her event of choice as she’s trained. We’ve pushed her a little more to attack that. She does a good job on form. Becca is very clean in everything.”

The two-time champ

Loheide Sweany exploded into the Indiana high school gymnastics scene as a freshman in 1986. She won the vault, bars and beam on her way to taking the all-around title with a 37.55, which at the time was the second-best total in state meet history. Her performance earned her a spot in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd feature.

As a sophomore, Loheide Sweany didn’t repeat as all-around champion, but she did win the floor and led the Bull Dogs to a runner-up team finish. Then as a junior, she won the all-around with a 36.4 to lead North to a third-place team finish.

“They both stood out for different reasons,” Loheide Sweany said. “The first was great because I had a pretty good day, and I was a freshman. Then, after my sophomore slump, I kind of redeemed myself.”

Her senior year, Loheide Sweany suffered a fall and finished fifth in the all-around. But her day ended on a high note when she won the IHSAA Mental Attitude Award.

“(The all-around titles were) great, but I think I’m probably more proud of that Mental Attitude Award,” Loheide said. “That was really special. I was very honored by that.”

Loheide Sweany went on to compete for four years at Eastern Michigan University. After college, she coached gymnastics at nationally recognized DeVeau’s School of Gymnastics in Fishers, where she lives with her husband, Brian, and three kids. She is retired from coaching and now works part time as a special ed and instructional assistant at Brooks Elementary School in Fishers.

“She was very, very powerful in every skill she did,” Freshour said. “Her skills were always big and high, and that was always complemented by her being a super-talented dancer. She didn’t have a weak event, and she was a gutsy gymnast. She would try big skills and new skills.

“When she stepped out onto a mat or to begin to execute a routine, you could feel her confidence, and she very much commanded an audience,” she said. “She was a very special gymnast to watch perform. She smiled from ear to ear. She set the bar for gymnastics at Columbus North.”

They called me ‘Rehab’

Howe Devers also made a big impact as a freshman, winning the bars and finishing second in the all-around to lead East to a fifth-place team finish. She then won the beam on her way to taking the all-around title with a 38.425 as a sophomore, when the Olympians finished fourth.

“That was definitely one of the high points,” Howe Devers said.

As a junior, Howe Devers suffered a torn ACL, broken wrist and dislocated elbow and made it back to compete only on the beam at state.

“Junior year was very frustrating, obviously, with all the injuries,” Howe Devers said. “I never got into any kind of rhythm. They called me ‘Rehab’ because that’s all I did.”

Howe Devers bounced back to finish third in the all-around as a senior, leading East to a fifth-place team finish. Only a fall on the floor kept her from winning a second all-around title. She then went to nationals in Las Vegas and finished eighth in all-around.

“I started when I was really young, and I practiced all the time,” said Howe Devers, who went to Wright’s Gymnastics in Southport six days a week for three years while in middle school. “I loved it, and that’s what I wanted to do. My family supported me, and that’s what I did.”

“She was one of those individuals that was very talented in all four areas,” Kirshman said. “She didn’t have a weakness. Usually, somebody has a weakness along the line, and she did not. She was the right size and had the power and flexibility and was a hard worker. She trained hard, and it worked out in her favor.”

After high school, Howe Devers competed in gymnastics for a year at Ball State but then injured her elbow again.

“They wanted to operate to fix it,” Howe Devers said. “I already had three knee surgeries, and I didn’t want to be cut again, so I came home.”

Howe Devers graduated from Ivy Tech Community College in Columbus. She lives in Columbus and works as surgical technician at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Franklin.

Eight days ago, Howe Devers and her husband, Toby, had their first child, a baby girl.

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