There was a tingly, queasy feeling in Jaci Newman’s stomach. The shudders were real.
She was just in seventh grade, but she wasn’t being treated like a middle schooler. And she was feeling the pressure to execute an intense floor routine.
Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa gymnastics coach Chris Templeton came over with a gentle reminder: “You can do it.”
“Nope, I can’t do it,” Newman responded. “Give me two more months.”
But that’s not how it works in the PIZM gymnastics room. Newman quickly learned that she had to give her floor routine a shot. With a deep breath, Newman readied and a burst of courage coursed through her veins. Newman laughs as she tells the story.
“I was just like, ‘If I die, it’ll be OK.’ You just have to try,” she said.
Things have changed since that seventh-grade year.
Newman has evolved into a veteran senior. It’s her last year of gymnastics, and she’s one of six seniors in the PIZM program. They hope to do huge things in 2021, and those principles that they learned in seventh grade haven’t changed.
"You never totally get rid of the fear with the sport,” Templeton said. “Once you master a skill, now you upgrade to the next one and that one is scary, too. It’s a mental approach. We keep telling these kids that if you think negative thoughts on the beam and if you’re more worried about falling off than staying on, you’re going to fall off. You have to be positive and trust yourself and trust your body and to go for it.
"That right there is the sport of gymnastics.”
You just have to try. That was preached repeatedly to Newman. Now, it’s part of her DNA.
“Being a seventh-grader was definitely scary, but I look back now and say, ‘I didn’t need to be that scared,’” Newman said. “You get scared to do skills. But I’d say I’ve improved a ton from my seventh-grade self with my confidence and skills and knowing that I’m not going to die if I do this skill. I’ve done it before, I can do it again.”
Newman will be an anchor for PIZM this season. She’s advanced to the state meet, so she knows what it takes to compete at the highest level.
It’s just a matter of fine-tuning the little details right now.
“A lot of us are sorer now than we’ve ever been,” Newman said. “We had six weeks where nobody was in the gym. And then you kind of get excited and you want to throw everything we can and then you wake up Tuesday and can’t get out of bed.”
But Newman is quick to point out that the added soreness is better than nothing. High school gymnasts weren’t sure if they would get to compete this season. The calluses on their hands, the mask-wearing during practice, it’s all worth it.
“Wearing a mask is definitely a bigger struggle than I thought it’d be,” Newman said. “We have to wear our masks when you’re standing in line, but you can take them off doing a skill. However, when you finish doing that skill, you’re out of breath, and you want to take your mask off, but you can’t. Obviously, when you cheer your teammates on and they do a big skill, you want to congratulate them and hug them but you can’t get within six feet of them. That’s definitely a struggle but we’re making it through. We didn’t really think we’d have a season. Just having one is such a blessing.”
The 2021 season will be Newman’s last for gymnastics. She’s invested so much time and energy into the sport. Her entire life has revolved around PIZM gymnastics.
“The girls become your second family because you’re with them so much,” Newman said. “We’re all going to different colleges. So It’s our last opportunity to be together. We really want to make it count. It’s all of our last seasons. We’re ready to have fun and show off what we’ve been working on for what feels like forever.”
There was a time this fall where they were convinced that they wouldn’t get to compete this season. They’re still not sure if they’ll get a state meet.
But Newman is thankful to have one more chance.
Templeton is the reason she wanted to become a gymnast back in fifth grade. Templeton would say that he’s not in it for the money. He became a gymnastics coach to help athletes like Newman reach their full potential. But Newman noted that Templeton has basically become her second dad. His kind-hearted, approachable demeanor lends well to getting the most out of his team.
There’s plenty of rust for Newman to knock off, but that process doesn’t have to be complete right away. She has 11 weeks before the section meet. She’ll be ready for that one last chance to run it back with her second family.
“We’ve been trying so hard to stay positive,” Newman said. “Even though we have to wear masks and even though the meets might look different, at least we have a season, so let’s be thankful, let’s make the best of it. There was a chance we wouldn’t even be at this moment. We’re so grateful. We want to cherish those moments.”
And that fear? It’s still there, but Newman’s just going to keep pushing the limits. That’s what she has to do.