Annapolis junior Brittany Matthews moved with confidence and grace on the balance beam at a recent gymnastics meet at Chesapeake. When she came out of her back handspring, her landing was steady, her posture tight, and her toes grasped the sides of the four-inch wide beam like little claws. Her score: 8.75.
Matthews recently was promoted to Level 10 as a club gymnast, meaning she is one step from trying out for the Olympic level. It also means higher expectations and more responsibility with the Annapolis high school team.
Matthews "helps a lot," Annapolis Coach Curtis Bland said. "I have 13 girls on the team. It's kind of hard for two coaches to spot and watch [all of them] at one time. Since she's real good on beam, we'll have her take some of the beam girls and teach them a few things. It really helps us out a lot. . . . She helps keep us within that range of being one of the top schools to compete."
Talented club gymnasts such as Matthews are rare on high school rosters, but each of this year's top county teams has one, or at least someone with club experience. Their knowledge has trickled down to their less-experienced teammates and exposed them to a different level of the sport. The majority of high school gymnasts join the team with no prior background other than cartwheels and tumbles.
"They're kind of timid on beam because it's their first time," said Matthews, who was a state champion in the uneven bars for Barlow's Gymnastics in Annapolis this year and placed first in the all-around competition at the Chesapeake meet last week. "I can understand. . . . The other day I was trying to get them to learn to be confident and sharp on turns. . . . I'm so used to competing and bigger crowds, so I'm there for encouragement. I always tell them to smile and have fun."
Chesapeake is counting on freshman Megan Askew, a Level 8 gymnast for Columbia Gymnastics in Howard County, to help the Cougars reclaim the county title. Arundel won the title last season, powered by former club gymnasts Julia Dykstra and Leigh Edwards. Last week, Askew placed second in the all-around, behind Matthews, leading Chesapeake to a first-place finish ahead of Arundel and Broadneck.
Askew and senior Andrea Abler, who used to compete for Top Flight Gymnastics in Columbia, have shared their knowledge with their less-experienced colleagues. Sophomore Amber Venanzi said if it weren't for Abler and her older sister, Erin, who graduated last year, she wouldn't have made the team this year.
Increased interest in the sport this year gave Chesapeake Coach Amy Harsanyi the luxury of making cuts. Anyone who couldn't do front and back handsprings, or learn them quickly, need not apply. Last year, Venanzi learned them from the Abler sisters.
"[Erin] and Andrea really taught me everything," Venanzi said. "I really liked bar, and some things I couldn't get. I couldn't get my pullover. [Erin] kept working with me and helped me out.
"It was a complete learning experience. It was hard, because you have to start from scratch. . . . It's still a challenge because you have those girls to compete with, and you always want to up the bar, and it's really difficult. It's definitely a total commitment."
For the top gymnasts, balancing time between club and high school teams is often the most difficult task. On a typical weekday, Askew practices with her high school team until 4:30 p.m., arrives at Columbia Gymnastics by 5 and doesn't get home until 9. She stays up until 11 doing homework.
"It was really hard because my coaches at my private gym were upset because I was coming late, but they loosened up a little with me," Askew said. "As long as I am still coming to the gym and I'm there by 5, it's okay."
Another concern for Askew's private coach is injury: The high schools use wrestling mats, while the private teams have spring floors.
"Since I broke my ankle in November, they're always afraid I'm going to get hurt again," she said. "They don't like me tumbling on a wrestling mat. I made a deal with them, and I don't really do that. I do all the tumbling at my gym."
Some of the county's top talent have quit club teams but are still competing at a level above the rest. Broadneck senior Claire Fontanella has found she has being challenged, though, by the girls who chose to stick with their club team.
"That's always a good thing to have," Fontanella said. " Girls like [Askew] . . . can help the girls who haven't had quite as much experience and also challenge the old kids like me who are mostly just getting back what we've lost, rather than learning new things."