Letting Sarah SoarMarch 1, 2014
Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Sometimes, the door closes and the feeling hits.
Sarah Smith is inside her other house with her other family, and her father backs the car out of the driveway and turns south. After 18 months, the drop has become swift, routine, not all that different from delivering a pizza. But Sarah is Brad and Sandy Smith’s daughter. They are her parents. Their affection for and dependence on one another is clear. Yet they operate in an unusual orbit in which their “normal” elicits responses like “Really?” and “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Sarah is a full-time gymnast. Six hours per day. Six days a week. People with real jobs work less at their craft. She is 15. An affinity for leaping, flipping, spinning, twisting, soaring and safely landing thrust her toward this path long ago. Now, she’s on the doorstep of status as one of our nation’s handful of elite gymnasts. A college scholarship is almost certain. A spot on the U.S. national team is possible. The 2016 Olympics are a stretch, but the chance hovers.
Sarah spends part of every day in an Indianapolis suburb, at a gym being coached by a gold medal winner and being home-schooled by a stand-in mother she met less than two years ago. She is home in Jasper, at most, 24 hours per week.
Brad, Sandy and Sarah have absorbed it all, this awkward blend of missing somebody yet being glad you’re apart. How are they supposed to feel? They know this: They won’t let this opportunity pass.
“I’ve always believed you give kids roots and wings so someday they can fly,” Sandy says. “Sarah’s wings came early and she’s still flying.”
A gymnast’s finished product is elegant. The process is anything but.
Sarah arrives at the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center a few miles off Interstate 70 east of Indianapolis about 8 almost every morning for instruction that’s broken into components. Like basketball players practice defensive slides and baseball players hit off a tee, gymnasts deconstruct their events so massively that a six-hour workout might not include a full competition routine.
Breaking things down is what JPAC does best.
The place is named for Phelps, who in 1996 as part of a group dubbed “The Magnificent Seven,” helped win the United States’ first women’s team all-around gold medal in Olympic history. The Greenfield native was coached by Bela Karolyi and among her teammates were Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug, the girl who famously landed the gold-clinching vault on a bum ankle. Phelps, 34, is short, wears dark sweatsuits and pulls her blond hair into a ponytail. Neither her look nor her demeanor intimidate. She is precise and rigid but her backstory supplies enough oomph that she need not domineer.
Before a Tuesday workout in January, she wrote on a dry-erase board that if a few gymnasts’ work on the floor exercise included correct landings as well as good presentation, the group may not have to do a second pass. She punctuated the plan with a smiley face.
Her fiancÃ© and business partner is more prone to frowns. Dave Marus is a former elite-level gymnast who rose as high as the top 20 nationally. Impressive to outsiders, sure. But Marus, 38, recognizes he idled a step or two from the pinnacle. It bothers him still.
“We come from two stories,” Marus says of he and Phelps. “She can say what she did that worked, how she got to the top level of competition. I can say what didn’t work, how I was so close and didn’t get to where I was capable of getting.”
Marus didn’t work hard enough. At 15, peers bypassed him. There are six girls enrolled as full-time gymnasts at JPAC and Marus wants to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to them.
On the uneven bars during a Monday afternoon session in the middle of January, Sarah and her teammates toggled through tasks. They had to complete five handstands on the lower bar.
“Nope, doesn’t count,” Marus said, stuck on repeat as he studied each athlete’s posture and positioning.
Two days after the first meet of the season, in which Team JPAC’s results didn’t thrill the coaches, he and Phelps were there to prod. Attention-getting practices are part of the regimen.
With his arms folded and his head tilted back, Marus looks perpetually unsatisfied. He searches for flaws. Bald and built, he is intimidating. The word “achieve” is pasted on one of the gym’s walls. So are “dream” and “believe.” Marus is more about achievement. And it’s up to you to get there.
“If you want to leave on time, get it done,” he hollered that January afternoon. “You have 15 minutes.
You have to get it done. It’s not a question.”
When an after-school class filled with 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds later lined up shortest to tallest then rolled through a warm-up routine, he shouted at them “Push! Push! Push!” With a different instructor, a handful of the kindergarten-aged novices climbed a rope 20 feet toward the ceiling like it was no big deal.
Marus acknowledges, “You might walk in here and think I’m a (jerk).”
The biting style is a bit striking when applied to young girls. Sarah is the oldest among the full-timers; the youngest is 8. But the gymnasts at JPAC are there to be pushed. The gym operates with two purposes for its clients — to earn a spot on the U.S. national team or, if that doesn’t work out, to earn a full college scholarship. One of Sarah’s teammates recently signed a letter of intent to compete at Ohio State University, and Brad and Sandy have already collected mail from a handful of colleges. The JPAC facility, which opened in 2010 when Phelps and Marus relocated from Marus’ native Dallas, is young by gym standards, so the national team bid hasn’t yet materialized.
Talent like Sarah makes the dream possible.
USA Gymnastics follows strict guidelines with gymnasts’ abilities divided into tiers. There are more than 23,000 novices in levels one through four. At Level 10, where Sarah has been competing for four years, the number shrinks to 1,700. Only 79 have leapt to elite status. There are 14 spots on the U.S. national team. The Olympic squad consisted of seven members during Phelps’ day; that number has since been sliced to five.
Sarah began the current competition season in January eager to become elite. The meet cycle will end in May, but the mission is ongoing. Becoming the best requires completion of certain tests pertinent but not specific to gymnastics. Among them: scale a 25-foot rope without the use of legs.
Also: hang on a bar with legs locked at 90 degrees then lift the legs upward to touch the bar before returning them to 90 degrees.
“It’s very hard-core,” Sarah acknowledges.
But that’s not the difficult part. Only certain meets are earmarked for elite qualification — this season’s final one was last month — and gymnasts must secure a certain score in the first round of a two-day competition. Part of the necessary skill set is the mastery of a compulsory routine consisting of moves that are basic but must be perfected.
“Judging is harder,” Sarah says. “It’s about height, how you hit the (vault) table, where your head is when you do flips, how you land.”
Sandy compares the gap between Level 10 and elite to the gulf between baseball’s minor and major leagues. Brad says it’s more like soaring from a minor-league role player to a major-league all-star.
“You have to work every day,” Marus says. “There is no time to let up. If you do, you lose ground.”
Mornings begin at 8 and carry through to 11:30. They’re reserved for floor exercise, uneven bars and balance beam. The remaining skill in the female gymnasts’ four-event palate, vault, is part of an afternoon session than runs 3 to 5:30. (The window separating sessions is reserved for school work).
Part of Wednesday afternoon is blocked for mental training — athletes must learn to compartmentalize, grasp that a mistake on the beam, for instance, can’t damage their confidence for the rest of the meet. Saturday’s session ends around noon.
The girls smile. They have their own locker room. But, in the shell of a building that looks like a former warehouse, the vibe is more military than birthday party. On one door: a sign outlining the differences between winners and whiners. After that January morning when Phelps offered to cut the girls slack if they nailed their first floor exercise routine, another Level 10 competitor named Sarah struggled for a solid landing after a tumbling pass. Time and again, she fell.
“All three passes had mistakes,” Phelps judged.
Phelps’ offer for a respite faded. Bothered by her imperfect routine and a sore back, the other Sarah sniffled. She was told to change her expression or be excused to the locker room.
“You’re not going to stand out here and cry,” Phelps said.
Sarah Smith’s tumbling also lacked sharpness, and her irritation was visible. But, with her, negativity regenerates as motivation.
“It’s her attitude,” Phelps said. “You’re going to have more days when you wake up and you don’t feel good, you’re tired, you’re not ready. There are all kinds of excuses. Everybody’s got them. But it’s how you approach each day. Sarah probably hurts more than most. But her attitude toward working on a daily basis is spot-on. I don’t know if she’s tired or hurting or happy because she puts on a game face.”
Way before this endeavor began, Sandy, quite frankly, presumed gymnastics would overwhelm her only daughter. When the pair showed up at Hodgini School of Dance and Gymnastics in Jasper, Sandy had already been told the toddler was too advanced for beginner lessons. Sarah was 2, maybe 3.
Sandy (Giesler), a former Jasper High School cheerleader who flipped down the basketball court with ease in the days before rapid-fire back-handsprings were normal, wanted to offer exposure but figured the kid would get scared. “She’s little, big gym, lots going on. She won’t want to come back,” Sandy remembers thinking.
Brad and Sandy’s sons, Luke and Andy, consumed the daily to-do list and Sandy wasn’t sure she wanted to wade into more.
“But she didn’t want to leave,” Sandy recalls. “I told her we had to go home and eat. She wanted to come back after supper. I promised to come back and check it out.”
Barry Dubuque owns Hodgini and has been teaching gymnastics for more than 40 years. He remembers Sarah as a “tiny thing with a huge smile.” Dubuque flatly says he’s coached a handful of athletes with enough talent to compete on the Olympic level. But they lacked something. Sarah has always had more. The girl trusted her instructors. She wanted to be challenged.
“It’s not about talent. It’s about everything else that goes into it,” Dubuque says. “Do you have the work ethic? Do you have coaches and a program? Do you have parents who want to pay? Many Olympians aren’t the most talented. They combine talent with 10,000 hours of hard work. Sarah has been willing to pay that price.
“She has a gift.”
An ability, Dubuque recognized, that required more rigourous training. Sarah jumped to a gym in Evansville in 2008. That’s when things got serious.
Workouts in Evansville were Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday evenings and another on Saturday mornings. Sundays included another hour drive to the city for a private lesson. The Smiths hired high school students to shuttle Sarah to and from Evansville, contracting whoever they could.
Sandy, who works in information technology at Kimball Electronics, polled co-workers for possible drivers. Brad, who operates the family business, Tell City Pretzels, worked networks of friends to find responsible volunteers. The list grew by the month; Sandy remembers at least 13.
The Smiths provided the car and some cash. For four years, the routine beat like a metronome. But there was the time difference and eating sandwiches on the go and finishing class work by flashlight in a dark passenger seat.
“Exhausting,” says Sandy, who often picked up Sarah from Tenth Street School over lunch to help with homework.
On Thursdays after school, Sarah often staggered home, collapsed on the couch and spent her only free evening asleep.
“There was no quality of life,” Sandy says. “She would argue with Brad at night and me in the mornings. I still remember one doctor appointment when she was laying on a bench, hanging halfway off the bench, just sleeping. At that point, we said (no more).”
Dubuque had already suggested the Smiths find an Indianapolis-area gym to meet Sarah’s needs.
They said they’d consider his idea as soon as Indy was relocated closer to Jasper. They’d already decided to pull Sarah from public schooling and teach her at home. Still, Sarah’s rising ability merited a bigger change. Discussing the options one night at the kitchen table, they reached a consensus.
“I remember saying, ”˜I’d hate to live the rest of our lives wondering what if?’,” Sandy says. “We didn’t want to say, ”˜I wonder what she could have done. Could she have been elite? Could she be on the national team?’ She has talent, determination, passion. We can sit here and say, ”˜What if?’ and that would be a horrible thing. Or we can just check it out.”
JPAC was Brad’s idea, but Sarah wasn’t a fan. She’d heard rumors of the rugged training — trash cans strategically placed to collect vomit — and the family knew JPAC had a waiting list of enrollees.
They talked Phelps and Marus into an evaluation in the summer of 2012. Sarah displayed her ability with such aptitude that Phelps offered a position before the Smiths left the gym.
Phelps coached previously in Arizona, Colorado and Texas, and her appraisal of Sarah’s talent was accurate. Sarah is the leader by virtue of more than her age. At the first meet of the year, a three-day extravaganza at a convention center across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Covington, Ky., Sarah was among the few members of Team JPAC — or any other group — who did not appear rattled.
Yes, she moved more than her brothers while in the womb. From the top bunk as a toddler, she tried to grab curtains and swing. It didn’t end well. In her first meet at Level 10, Sarah failed to land a flip, crashed and came off the mat bawling. Brad feared Sarah might quit on the spot. He should have known better.
“One of our first times at Hodgini, she fell and bit her tongue,” Sandy recalls. “They told her to rinse her tongue and get back up there, and she did. They can tell her to try something and she will.”
She fears only spiders and snakes when injuries should be the most rational phobia. She has broken a foot, suffered at least one concussion, fractured a shin, cracked a growth plate in an elbow and endured shin splints.
At the meet in Kentucky, she and several teammates practiced the uneven bars but failed to clutch the bar. They slammed onto a mat in a face-down thud.
Sandy and Brad’s mother, Janet Smith, rocked backward with each of Sarah’s flips and flinched every time she let go of the bar. But every JPAC athlete who fell — in warm-ups or the competition — promptly rose to her feet. The reaction from teammates was the same: “You got this, finish strong.”
Sarah crashed in warm-ups then placed third in the competition.
“I always tell her that I don’t know what she has, but she has something when it’s time to compete, she’s ready,” Brad adds. “She has always been mentally strong.”
As a team, JPAC scored second in Kentucky. Sarah was the most decorated among the girls in sparkling black and royal blue leotards. She won the all-around championship for her age group and her vault score of 9.65 was high enough that she earned a return trip Saturday evening to compete in a showcase of the meet’s stars.
She performed even better two weeks later in Warren, Mich., where she again won the all-around championship for her age group by earning first in all four events. Last weekend in Downers Grove, Ill., just west of Chicago, Sarah won two events, placed second in the other two and repeated as the all-around champion.
Last month in Colorado Springs, Colo. — JPAC flies to one destination each year for a meet — the momentum faded when she fell off the beam. But she won the vault, and her acrobatics were enough that a former Olympian other than Phelps took notice. Mary Lou Retton — yeah, the girl on the Wheaties box who won five medals in the 1984 Olympics — watched Sarah’s vault and mouthed, “Wow.”
“When she was young, we heard about how Sarah was good,” Brad remembers. “But we’re here in little Jasper, Ind. So we had an Olympic coach look at her at a camp and I asked, ”˜Is she different? Should we do something different?’ He told me that when she’s ready, she’ll ask for more gym time. It’s always been her saying she wants to do this. It’s always been her attitude to say, ”˜Yeah, let’s go.’”
Sarah still remembers the first day in her new life.
Practice was over and she was sitting in the back seat of a car driven by a man she met five minutes prior. That man was her new surrogate father.
“Scared to death,” Sarah recalls.
When JPAC opened a spot for Sarah in 2012, the kid needed a place to live. Phelps linked the Smiths with Shawn and Carissa Toungate, who live in Fishers with their two children, 14-year-old Brendan and Mykenna, 13, a full-time JPAC gymnast who competes with Sarah at Level 10. Shawn, a physical therapy and rehabilitation supervisor, and Carissa, a respiratory therapist, consider themselves blessed to have the means to welcome a stranger into their home.
The Smiths consider themselves lucky to have them.
The Toungates are self-deprecating, easy-going and goofy, a style that melds with Sarah, a girl who not long ago became infatuated with superheroes and comfortably exchanges her competitive edge for the high-pitch cackling and juicy gossip of the world of teenage girls. Sarah and Mykenna are sisters without the tension. The evening routine almost always includes dancing, maybe some Ping-Pong and foosball and sometimes a comedic review of practice. Sarah grabs what she wants from the cabinets. She both loves and hates the dog. She has her own room.
“It’s like living with my own family,” she says.
Sarah would be a freshman in high school had she stayed in Jasper, and she completes homework via a state-certified program Carissa coordinates for both Sarah and Mykenna. Each day at the gym, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. is reserved for education. The subjects are broad and mainstream — literature, science, history, math, Spanish, health. Sarah and Mykenna rest their laptops on a table and nibble on lunch while they study.
Mykenna goes for Lunchables. Sarah prefers nutrition over convenience. Each Sunday at the Smiths’ home in Jasper, Sarah totes arms full of frozen vegetables from a freezer and unloads them on the counter to make her lunches for the next week. Shrimp with noodles. Ground beef with cheese in a tortilla. Rice. Vegetables. Turkey. Sarah has learned to like to cook and she uses the time to connect with Sandy and, usually, Sandy’s mother, Esther Giesler.
Sarah’s time in her hometown is condensed into a 24-hour window that begins about 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
Sandy picks up Sarah from the gym near Indy most Saturdays and evenings in Jasper are spent being lazy. Sundays are for church and necessary errands — chiropractor appointments, allergy shots, shopping. In January, a haircut doubled as a chance for Sarah to visit with the beautician’s daughter, a former middle school classmate.
Brooklyn Pierce dished the gossip: a freshman is starting on the varsity boys basketball team; one couple broke up; some kid got kicked out of German class. Sarah joked about wishing to go back to the good ol’ days of sixth grade.
The conversation wandered through a sea of giggles. It peeled Sarah’s veneer and she sounded like a 15-year-old girl who misses her friends and the clubs she might have joined and the other sports she used to play. Sarah returns home almost every weekend. She prefers the staccato visits over extended stays.
“The longer I’m home, the more I’m homesick,” Sarah says. “I know I’m always going there for a reason. I’d rather go there than stay here.”
Confined weekend trips mute longing for days gone by.
Luke, 25, lives in Utah in a home Sarah has never seen. Andy, 21, studies at Indiana State University and sometimes diverts his route home from Terre Haute to pick up Sarah in Indy. Sandy uses the Saturday ride home and Sunday errands to bond with her daughter. Brad likes Saturday movie nights with Sarah by the fire and Sunday breakfast. Brad and Sarah text every day.
If there is separation anxiety, the Smiths suppress it. They’ve never fretted over the monthly gym fee or paying the Toungates or shelling out cash for gas to taxi Sarah home each weekend.
“Other parents worry about drugs, sex, alcohol,” Sandy notes.
“She’s in a gym. She doesn’t even eat junk food. That can change. I’m not naive to that. But I feel blessed she’s in a very different environment and one she loves. It’s not about me. It’s not about us. I can’t hold her back.”
So Brad and Sarah load up the car almost every Sunday afternoon and point north to start another week in this lifestyle that long ago veered far from mainstream. Sarah isn’t sure how long she’ll compete. A girl’s body can hold up only so long, and time will eventually rob her of flexibility and spring, then confidence and, eventually, opportunity.
But she’s got all that now. And there’s a dream to chase.
“Sometimes, I wonder what the end game is,” Brad confesses. “But gosh, the experience has been something. Right now, I can’t see a down side. You never know when she’ll be done.
“But if she decided to quit tomorrow, it would have still have been worth it.”
Contact Jason Recker at email@example.com.
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