I sat dejectedly on the concrete floor of the University of Oklahoma gymnastics arena, a few steps away from the rest of the team. My elbows rested on my knees. My hands covered my face. I tried to hide my tears.
Our two male coaches walked through the long corridor and said nothing as they passed us. They were just as upset as we were. We had lost the 2008 Big 12 Conference Gymnastic Championships on our final event.
I cried for a half an hour after the meet.
“It’s OK Hatch,” our beam and choreography coach Amy Smith told me. “We won’t let it happen again.”
I said nothing on the bus. At dinner, I sat with my family who came to watch the competition. Hiding under the dim lights of the restaurant, I tried to cheer up. After all, they did drive more than six hours to see me.
That night, a lot of people tried to make me feel better. One person stood out.
Still recovering from a knee surgery last year, the team’s unofficial cheerleader, Jan Summers hobbled over to me with her big, cheeky smile. Because of my red, watery eyes and somber face, I knew she sensed my disappointment. We both knew what could have been. We led the competition for three of four events. We could have won. We’ve never finished higher than third.
This time, the usually-chatty Summers was silent. Instead, she hugged me.
A coach and parent will tell you that everything will be OK. They’ll tell you that there’s always next year. Jan Summers and her husband Gerald Summers are different. While they also tell you those things, their connection to the team is strictly voluntary. They aren’t former athletes. Their daughter never did gymnastics. They involve themselves because they want to. They hold genuine interest in the athletes’ well-being and the success of the team, and that makes all the difference.
Jan Summers, the library and media specialist at Oakland Junior High School, and Gerald Summers, an associate professor of Biology at MU, are two of the most loyal Mizzou gymnastics fans. Gerald Summers is president of the gymnastics booster club. Besides keeping an update on the team’s regional qualifying score, he also raises money for the program. Jan Summers is one of our biggest promoters. She sends e-mails with newspaper articles and pictures to more than 100 people. When their home computer became cluttered with Jan’s pictures from meets, they upgraded. They even named their cat Tiger.
Before the season, they stop by practice at least once every other week. During the season, we see them every Thursday before home meets, often bringing us snacks.
“She’ll bring in grapes, oranges and sometimes cookies,” head coach Rob Drass said. “It’s nice for the girls because it’s someone other than mom and dad to turn to.”
These small efforts resonate with the athletes.
“It makes me happy just to see them,” junior Adrianne Perry said. “And especially after a hard practice, the little things like oranges really help. We’ll sit there in a circle and talk for 20 minutes or so while everyone grabs oranges out of the bags.”
For the Summers, interest began in 1984 when they attended the second annual Cat Classic. It was love at first sight. They were hooked. Both were amazed at the athleticism and consistency of the skills performed. They couldn’t stop coming to meets. The next year they went to nearly every meet and joined the booster club. After that, they bought season tickets.
They make it a goal to attend all meets. In 20 years, the duo has only missed a handful of competitions, including away meets. When the team’s schedule is released, they make travel arrangements and use personal days from work.
“I think (them traveling) speaks volumes to their commitment,” Drass said. “It’s nice to know that no matter where you go, you’re always going to have them cheering you on.”
To see the team compete, they have traveled to universities such as Oregon State, Florida, Penn State and California-Berkley. You could even call them mini-family vacations. Instead of taking summer getaways, they go to gymnastics meets.
After 20 years, they understand the sport, but not entirely. To Jan Summers, a double layout is the same as a double full. It’s more about the connection from people who care just because they want to, that is important. But don’t even think about talking to Jan Summers while a gymnast competes. She probably won’t answer. She’s nervous. One of her 15 “daughters” is competing.
She’s the one sitting on the edge of her seat, watching every routine with intent eyes. She’s a true fan from her dangling tiger earrings to her cheers and chants that are heard across the arena. When she smiles, her pink cheeks create a face to remember, one that’s oozing with energy. As a member of the team, I think she’s everything we need.
“These girls just make me so very proud,” she said. “Whether in the classroom or in the gym, I’m fortunate to be involved with such a great program.”
For meets, the Summers arrive just as the doors open, usually an hour before competition begins. At this time, warm-ups are usually halfway finished, but you’d see them at the beginning if possible. They sit behind the announcers, among the group of parents on the north side of the Hearnes Center, with their full attention focused on every routine. Even though they have season tickets, they stay involved with the competition by moving closer to the parents.
They love the sport. It’s their true passion. They bring that enthusiasm and energy to the team through their involvement. It’s a team consensus: We love these two.
They’ve continued their support through the good and the bad. They were there when Lauren Schwartzman got a 10.0 on beam. They were there when the departure of two coaches left the team devastated before the competition season. They were there when Perry won the all-around at the Big 12 Championships. Their ongoing support helps the team stay ambitious every season.
It’s more than their joy of the sport. They care about the people too.
I got a lot of hugs the night of Big 12 meet. The one from Summers was different. She wrapped her arms around me and rested her chin on my shoulder.
Neither of us let go.
Alicia Hatcher, a junior on the MU gymnastics team, is a two-time member of the All-Big 12 first team on the uneven parallel bars