Brynn Burkhalter can pinpoint when her life changed.
It was fourth grade, with her taking part in a gymnastics session with a bunch of other fourth-grade Pine Island girls.
“The first day I was in there, I knew that (gymnastics) would be my life,” Burkhalter said. “I met my true friends that way. Meeting them has changed my life. It’s brought so much happiness to it.”
There are a group of four Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa gymnasts who have been joyously together since that fourth-grade year, training at Kaats Gymnastics in Pine Island. They are Burkhalter, Eliza Goplen, Jaci Newman and Sawyer Gorman. All are now juniors. There are two more who make this a six-pack of inseparable Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa juniors, Z-M’s McKenzie Cordes and Alivia Berg. They joined the fray as sixth-graders and as freshmen became members of the Pine Island/Z-M team when the schools consolidated in high school gymnastics.
For Cordes — as is true for all of them — there’s been no turning back, with far too much fun and support to be had to become disconnected.
“When it’s all done (next year), it’s going to be incredibly sad,” Cordes said. “The emotional help we all give each other helps so much. And us six all have so much in common and get along so well. We all like shopping, getting our nails done and prom-dress shopping. We also all love singing on the bus on the way to meets. We sing our hearts out.”
What 20th-year Pine Island/Z-M gymnastics coach Chris Templeton appreciates even more than them putting everything into those bus-ride songs is how they apply infinitely more energy to becoming standout gymnasts and a standout team.
Pine Island/Z-M has been among the state’s top gymnastics programs under Templeton for the last couple of decades. They still are elite (currently ranked fourth in Class A) in good part thanks to Templeton and the all-for-one approach he teaches.
This latest group, he says, has embraced that just as he’d hoped.
“They are all leaders in their own right, and they all support each other,” Templeton said. “If one of them is having a problem, they are all there to help out. They’re easy to coach, their skills are coming along and they’re hard workers. Plus, they all train in the off-season. All six of them have a lot of potential.”
As much skill and athleticism is required in gymnastics, it is also a test of courage. Injuries are common, with gymnasts putting themselves in precarious positions in trying new tricks. Uneven parallel bars, vault, balance beam — all are high-rising, risky acts.
All the more reason that emotional support is required from teammates and coaches.
Burkhalter knows about injuries and how they can derail a gymnast. She experienced that last February when a back problem almost ended her career.
But thanks to teammates, she persevered and has returned to gymnastics.
“I didn’t think I’d be back in this sport again, but my teammates pushed and pushed me to get my (back) therapy done,” Burkhalter said. “And now it feels so good to be a part of this team again. It’s fun to have that happiness back and share in my teammates’ glow.”
This group of six Pine Island/Z-M junior gymnasts, they know just what to do.
“It just helps having these other girls around,” Goplen said. “Things can get difficult and you can get frustrated with yourself. Having these teammates around, it really helps.”
Cordes says they bring out bravery in each other.
“When you’re scared to do something, these girls can talk you through it,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
This tightly bonded group of six Pine Island/Z-M junior gymnasts won’t be the only ones who are going to be emotional when their careers are over in another year. Their coach, Templeton, will also be struck.
After all, he’s watched them grow up, getting that first bit of work in with them as fourth-graders at Kaats.
“That is the fun part of the job, watching kids grow up,” he said. “That’s one of the joys of coaching. But it’s going to be sad when it’s done. You just spend so much time with them.”