Goals, Passions Produce Historic Day

November 9, 2017 GMT

DUNMORE It’s this moment that gets the attention. Always seems to be that way, doesn’t it? Excuse MacKenzie Black, though, if she takes this chance to remember that time when she was 6, trying to determine whether she wanted to keep taking ballet lessons or pursue that gymnastics class, both of which happened to be scheduled at the same time. Excuse Donna Howell if she’s thinking as much on the last four years’ worth of near-daily 45-minute drives from her New Milford home to Dunmore, then back home again, as she is the paper in front of her that will change her life. And excuse Adeline Rider if it’s difficult to think about the past at all, considering so much of it has been about a future she was determined to achieve. But for Black, Howell and Rider, maybe the most amazing thing about a night like Wednesday is that they were sitting at the same table as dozens of younger aspiring gymnasts at the United Sports Academy looked on, all three with scholarship offers in front of them, all with dreams-come-true that simply needed their signatures. By the time they got done signing, it was official. Black will be continuing her gymnastics career at West Virginia University. Howell will be heading to Penn State. And Rider achieved her goal of tumbling and competing at Brigham Young University. “This is fabulous,” said Omar Egas, one of the Competitive Team gymnastics coaches at United Sports Academy. “They get medals at meets. We get this. This is the most important thing of the year.” The United Sports Academy has been around here a while now. It has been more than 20 years, actually, since the days when it was known as Keystone Gymnastics and Egas was a coach leading a handful of area youngsters through the beginning stages of gymnastics fundamentals. Now, USA has about 700 kids enrolled and is moving into a new facility at 1817 North Main Ave. in Scranton next week, which is quite a feat for a sport that doesn’t exactly grab headlines around here. But when three of its members gather together to sign national letters of intent to compete at the college level? That’s headline-worthy, for sure. It’s almost unthinkable, really. Consider that, in all, there are 86 programs that compete at the NCAA Div. I level in gymnastics. They each can give out 12 scholarships to competitors on the roster. Which means, there are only about 250 Div. I college scholarships handed out to gymnasts on a yearly basis. Now, think about this: Three of them were accepted Wednesday night by gymnasts who train and compete out of the United Sports Academy. USA has had two sign in one year. Usually, coaches like Egas and Dima Raynova and Sylvia Topalova, who have combined to compete in three Olympic games, count themselves as lucky to have one pupil go on to the collegiate level. But, they knew, Black, Howell and Rider are different. Different in athleticism. Different in focus. They know them better than anybody, really. Raynova said they’ve known most of their students since they were practically toddlers. The thing about gymnastics is, it takes hours of practice, consistently, to be as good, as precise, as you need to be to compete at the highest levels. Egas said each of the students who signed practice no fewer than 21 hours per week, six days a week. When they compete, they travel the country a few weekends a year. Sometimes, the students find them, like Howell did four years ago before signing on with the Nittany Lions on Wednesday. Howell was 4 when she began taking gymnastics lessons at an academy closer to home. But, she and her family determined a move to USA for her training would help put her over the top competitively. “I was in a dance class,” Howell recalled of her introduction to the sport, “but, it got cancelled. So, I went to an (acrobatics) class, and I really liked that. So, I moved on. “I just loved everything about. The hard work, everything.” Black and Rider didn’t have the long distance between home and the gym that Howell had. But, they had to fight through their own ups and downs, too. Black is a Dunmore High School student who had to give up running track to focus on gymnastics as much as she needed to. Like Howell, she started out as a dancer, but she found the challenge of tumbling different, perhaps more entertaining, than the one posed by ballet. “I just liked running around,” Black laughed. “I didn’t pay attention to anybody. I was just hopping around and having fun, just burning off energy.” By the time she was 12, she started to watch teammates going to college to compete, and she came to the realization: She wanted to do that. When she sat at the table, her scholarship offer in front of her waiting to be signed, she took a glance at the younger students gathering around to watch, knowing it wasn’t so long ago that she was one of them. Knowing the inspiration she got from moments like that. “We’re just really grateful, grateful to have the coaches we have now, for our parents to keep us level-headed when we needed them to,” she said. “The commitment is unreal. You have to be very determined. This is a rigourous and very time-consuming sport. If you don’t love it, you’re just not going to want to come here.” Gymnastics isn’t for the feint of heart, for sure. A student at Scranton Prep and a Scott Twp. resident, Rider missed almost all of last season with a left ankle injury she suffered during training, taking her away from the mat during a prospective college gymnast’s prime recruiting exposure. But, that wasn’t all. She has sprained that left ankle several times. She broke her tibia. “It was really stressful,” Rider said. “I thought my career was over.” But, a night like this? One that gets her closer to those unspeakably beautiful mountains in Provo, Utah, to the place where her sister Abby was on the gymnastics team, where her father spent his college days, too? “It’s so surreal,” she said. “I still can’t believe it. I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life.” Waiting for it. Hoping for it. Tumbling toward their destinations, shortly after they learned to walk. Arriving at that final moment at the same time, and getting there the same way. DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.