A year ago, Teryl Smith, Jr. stood alone on a podium, flashing smiles for national photographers and tugging a golden medallion draped around his neck.
With his father Teryl Smith, Sr. at his side during his first appearance at the USA Gymnastics Association Stars & Stripes Junior Olympic Championships at the Cox Business Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he won a gold medal.
A year later he stood a step lower on the podium but his group of three was three athletes larger. Three of those claimed national championships for the first time in the disciplines of the double-mini trampoline, the trampoline & tumbling.
One — tumbler and trampolinist Emma Pitts — won two.
"Last year we started off our competitive season with eight athletes and ironically, this year we started off with eight athletes. Last year we finished with six and this year we did the same," said Smith, Sr., a former NBA slam dunk acrobat with Team Turbo and the Houston Rockets. He also worked with the WNBA's Houston Comets. "Three of them returned from last year's success and one of them didn't get to compete last season was there in Tulsa this year."
While Jackson Wells claimed a Level 5 double-mini title and placed sixth overall in trampoline & tumbling, T.J. Williams won a Level 7 national championship in tumbling and finished fifth overall in trampoline and the double-mini.
Jada Simmons and Kylee Chambers, two of the three girls that competed in Tulsa, finished ninth in Level 7 and 23rd overall in Level 5 tumbling, respectively. Simmons also closed her tournament run with No. 9 ending in tumbling and No. 8 in the double mini.
Smith, Jr., the reigning champion in the double mini, finished second in all three events.
When the smoke cleared, five of the six athletes placed first in a competition that invited 900 — including Level 5 Trampoline Champion Jasly Lile, Level 6 Tumbling Champion Hannah Holland and Level 7 Double Mini Champion Jacob Calderon. To get to Tulsa they had to be the best gymnasts among a field of more than 1,700.
"It's the best of the best, the top 900 kids in the country," said Nicole Pitts, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and combat medic. "There are 300-500 athletes at each meet and there are six to eight of them. Seventeen hundred compete at regionals and 1,300 compete at state. To get to regionals, you have two shots to get a qualifying score at their level in every one of their disciplines at either regional competitions or state competition to move on. So yeah, it's some of the best kids in America at each of those competitions."
The USAG recognizes tumbling, the double mini trampoline and the trampoline events. She said only the last has Olympic competition, noting Hall of Fame gymnast Jennifer Parilla as one of the disciplines heroines after becoming the first and only American to qualify for the Olympic Games as a trampolinist when the sport debuted in 2000.
Though her daughter Emma won the Level 5 female national titles in tumbling and the double mini, WNGA T&T Coach Nicole said she never tried to impress the passion she has for a sport she's done for 17 years — despite deployments and base relocations — on her daughter.
"She just won two national championships but she was a soccer player first and I refused to push my early life on her. She didn't start until about 18 months ago. She never had any formal training and I never taught her a thing until then. I guess it's in her DNA. It's definitely genetic," she said.
As a 10-year-old member of the now defunct Waxahachie Tumble Town USA, she won six of the team's seven consecutive National Tumbling Titles — her first in Rockford, Illinois — between 1990 and 1996.
"I started much younger than she did," Nicole continued. "I moved to Texas when I was four and I started gymnastics while I was at Cornerstone Christian School daycare called 'King's Kids.' The lady that owned the gym I'd become a part of would come to King's Kids with a van full of mats. That's how I got started. I trained and competed up to the Elite (Junior Olympic) level and coached there until I left for the Army."
That passion led the former Gingerbread City native to "teach wherever she could" throughout various U.S. — including training high school cheerleading schools on military bases and owning a gym in Lousiana that was blown away by Category 5 Hurricane Rita in 2005 — locations and back to Waxahachie and into the Gina Six-owned Waxahachie Gymnastics center.
UP THE LADDER
Though the first women's Olympic gymnastic competition, a primitive display of synchronized calisthenics for the most part, occurred during the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympic games. The specialization of tumbling and trampoline that has grown at the Junior Olympic level since its inception 17 years ago at the 2000 Sydney Games, however, is relatively new.
To truly understand the leap the children made from 2016 to 2017 by making the Junior Olympics, ? said you must first separate the Olympic trampoline from the toy that sits in backyards worldwide. She added that anyone placing trampoline & tumbling gymnastics, better know as T&T, under a microscope must also know what's required to advance — both physically and mentally — to each level before the age of 18 and the Olympic stage.
"The mental game probably takes precedence over the physical one," Nicole said. "I've seen a ton of kids that were the biggest and the strongest that were in a gym training hard and be excellent every time step up to the judges table, salute and crumble under the pressure. Their hands are shaking and their brain is fried. I'm proud to say that every single one of these kids [on the team] were prepared and more poised than any other athlete on the floor."
Before the nerves and the pressure are the evaluations, training and levels athletes must conquer with blood, sweat, tears and time — approximately 10-12 hours of mat time per week for each athlete according to both Pitts and Smith, Sr.
During the tournament season, those hours increase to 12-17.
Some may require more and others less, but none skip the levels mandated by the gymnastics organization.
There are 10 levels in the USAG Junior Olympic base system, beginning with Levels 1-10 for junior Olympians. Ten more exist for elite competitors.
While Levels 1-3 carry age 4,5 and 6 requirements, per the USA Gymnastics Program website, athletes must demonstrate 75 percent proficiency in Level 1-3 bars, beam, floor and vault routines by age 6 or Level 4.
By a Junior Olympic gymnast's seventh birthday, they must achieve a mobility score — requirements that help the USAG place a higher emphasis on the mastery of skills and maturity required in the next level — of 31.00 to move to the level Emma claimed a pair of national titles.
NOT YOUR ORDINARY BACKYARD TRAMPOLINE
The primary tool of half of two-thirds of tumbling and trampoline gymnastics, better known as T&T, both in dollar amount and design, is a different animal.
The price can differ from $4,000 for an Olympic-rated trampoline to $1,500 for an Olympic-sized (backyard) trampoline. The former is designed to allow higher and more dangerous acrobatics while the latter is padded and webbed differently to account for safety regulations for the average child.
The ones WGC acrobats use are a far cry from a backyard trampoline.
Trampoline gymnasts, too, are different than their ribbon-twirling and high-beam balancing counterparts. They do flips, twists and somersaults in a half-dozen different positions from curled to straight with a staunch realization of the primary goal — increasing the danger and staying in the air as long as possible between takeoff and landing.
Every revolution costs time which brings them further away from the temporary safety of the air and closer to the obstacle of the ground.
Not a run-of-the-mill afternoon outing on a sleepy Sunday afternoon barbecue. It's the combination of the evolution of gymnastics, the road ahead and the path carved by the athletes of the WGC that produces a common thread.
It's something that makes Smith, Sr. crack a smile under his gruff gaze when correcting form or critiquing a landing.
"There was nervousness but they all learned when to bring their A game. And how to bring it," he said. "Five kids actually made it to the podium [this year] and even if they didn't, they ended up finishing high in the national standings. They're still learning and growing, too. It shows the sky's the limit for them."
Marcus S. Marion is the sports editor of the Waxahachie Daily Light and Midlothian Mirror. He can be reached by phone at (469) 517-1456 or across social media platforms @MarcusSMarion.