COLUMBIA — Missouri sophomore gymnasts Liz Straatmann and Sarah Shire were driving to gymnastics practice during high school. It was springtime; the weather was becoming warm and outdoor activities were starting.
On Woods Chapel Road in Blue Springs, Straatmann, at the wheel, noticed a lake to their right with boats. A normally boring car ride, the monotony disappeared with the sight of the boats. They turned their heads and admired the floating objects on the blue lake.
As soon as their heads cocked 90 degrees, they rode up onto a curb to their left. Hanging over the curb, both startled, Straatmann immediately backed off the curb and onto the road. Both took deep breaths and decided to focus on the road.
“It was one of our near-death experiences,” Shire said with a laugh. “But we made it safely to practice, for the most part.”
Shire and Straatmann met at Great American Gymnastics Express, an elite gymnastics training facility in Blue Springs that also has produced current MU gymnasts Adrianne Perry and Alicia Hatcher. Originally, they were just acquaintances who would see each other at the gym. But when Straatmann needed to find a high school closer to GAGE, Shire’s family was there to help.
Shire attended Archbishop O’Hara High School in Kansas City where her father was a teacher, and he suggested the school to Straatmann’s parents. Straatmann had attended Catholic school her entire life, so her parents saw Archbishop O’Hara as a great choice. But when they realized that Shire’s father could also give Straatmann a ride to practice every day during his lunch break, the school became the perfect choice.
Going to the same school, having many of the same classes and driving together 25 minutes a day to GAGE, Shire and Straatmann became friends. Practicing from 1 to 7 p.m. almost daily, bonding became inevitable.
“It was hard every day going to gym and going to school,” Shire said. “I think we leaned on each other for support. We were both tired on the same days, and she supported me and I supported her.”
After they turned 16 and were old enough to drive, they rotated driving responsibilities. During the car rides, they played loud music and sang to the radio, just acting like typical teenagers. Over time, their friendship became stronger and they counted on each other during difficult times.
When Shire tore ligaments in her right foot during her senior year, Straatmann was more than willing to drive every day knowing how difficult it was for Shire to drive. For Straatmann’s generosity, Shire gave back during Straatmann’s toughest days.
When Straatmann tore her left ACL for the second time during her senior season, she was obviously frustrated. But Shire kept her positive.
“Sarah was there to encourage me to not give up,” Straatmann said. “I could’ve been at that point, but she was there to calm me down.”
While many top-level collegiate recruits discuss college choices in-depth with teammates, Shire and Straatmann resisted the temptation.
“None of us really talked about sticking together,” Shire said. “Not to be rude or anything, it just didn’t work out for us that way. I think we each went to what was best for us at the time.”
Shire committed to Utah during March of her junior year, while Straatmann would not commit to MU for another six months. Although Shire had already chosen her college, she did not want to interfere in Straatmann’s decision.
“She definitely did it on her own,” Shire said. “I remember her tossing up a couple of schools here and there and she would talk about pros and cons. But it was definitely her and her family’s decision.”
When college started, it proved to be a difficult experience after spending so much time together during high school.
“It was a lot different,” Straatmann said. “Our group of friends was so close, being away from everyone was just really hard.”
However, Straatmann and Shire did manage to communicate at college when time would permit. Busy during most of the week with school, practice and competitions, the pair had the opportunity to talk for a couple of hours each Sunday afternoon.
Shire also was able to see Straatmann during her school breaks. Shire’s parents lived in Hartsburg, so when she came home from school, she visited Straatmann in her dorm room and the two would hang out.
However, at Utah, Shire never felt settled and missed many aspects of home, including Straatmann. Although it never crossed Shire’s mind that she would leave Utah, she voiced her discontent to Straatmann.
“We had kind of been talking and she was telling me how things weren’t going well, and not how she wanted,” Straatmann said. “I was trying to encourage and keep her as sane as possible. Then she just called me one afternoon.”
That phone call Shire remembers vividly, including the exact date of July 19, 2007.
“I remember asking her ‘Do remember when we used to be teammates at GAGE?’” Shire said. “She was like ‘yeah,’ and then I said ‘Would you like that again?’ and she said ‘Oh my gosh, no way!’”
Shire had decided that Utah was not the place for her and that being back home at MU, with her friends, would be best.
And Straatmann couldn’t be happier go to school with Shire.
“She had a lot of stories, I had a lot of stories,” Straatmann said. “We missed an entire year of each other’s lives. We just talked a lot at first, got her used to everything (at MU) and showed her around.”
When school started in August, Shire got lost on campus. She called none other than Straatmann, who guided her the right way. Straatmann also helped Shire adjust to the new school by introducing her to other athletes, allowing Shire to make friends right away.
“When I got back here, she kind of grounded me again, helped me remember where I was from, what I started from,” Shire said. “She really helped me grow as a person, find me and be the person that I used to be and the person I want to be.”
While Straatmann helped Shire get acclimated to MU, Shire helped Straatmann have a better gymnastic mentality.
“She is the biggest supporter in the gym,” Straatmann said. “If I am having a bad day in the gym, she is always going to be there for words of encouragement. In the gym, she has helped me most to be a better athlete and stay positive.”
For Shire and Straatmann, they will always remember growing up together.
“The thing with me and Liz is, no matter what, we go back to the same common ground,” Shire said. “No matter where we go in life, I can guarantee you in 10 years, we are going to be able to laugh about stuff that happened sophomore year in high school.”