COLUMBIA - Missouri freshman gymnast Mary Burke is familiar with being the main attraction.
“I realized that other people, when we went to other schools, they were coming to see her compete,” said Jim Guest, Burke’s coach at Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “And if she’s only on one or two (events), I felt like I was cheating them.”
No. 13 Nebraska
at No. 12 Missouri
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Hearnes Center
In December, during the Tigers' Black and Gold meet, Burke was in the spotlight again. She won or tied for first in three events, beating out senior Adrianne Perry and junior Sarah Shire multiple times. Perry is a three-time NCAA Championships-qualifier. Shire was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year last season.
In high school, Burke was a celebrity.
“I’d be walking down the street and people would come and ask me for an autograph and I’d be like, ‘What? Why do you want my autograph? I’m not really a big deal,’” Burke said.
Although she won’t admit it, she was. Burke won three state individual all-around titles and led Fremd to three team state championships. Last year, she swept the state meet, winning all five events. A die-hard Cubs fan, Burke even got to sing during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field.
Although she is now living among thousands of Cardinals fans, Burke’s settled in nicely at MU. Her performances in the Black and Gold meet and in practice earned her a spot as an all-arounder, a rare position for a freshman.
“We haven’t had too many freshmen jump right into the all-around and be able to push some of our better all-arounders,” said coach Rob Drass, whose No. 12 Tigers host No. 13 Nebraska tonight. “…The three of them (Perry, Shire and Burke), they always want to know what the other one’s doing.”
Burke said she didn’t expect to be an all-arounder right away. Drass said Burke’s steadiness and consistency in practice helped her earn the role.
“She just slowly pecks away at making progress,” Drass said.
Burke knows there’s still progress to be made. She struggled on the balance beam in Missouri’s season opener at Iowa State and faltered on bars a week ago at Arizona State. Missouri won both meets, but Drass wants Burke to put together a complete meet.
“We’ve been on the road at two top-20 schools, so it’s been pressure-filled,” Drass said. “And we’re treating her like a veteran as far as expectations.”
Few gymnasts know what it’s like to compete as an all-arounder as a freshman, but Perry’s one of them. Perry started her Missouri career as an all-arounder, and Drass said Burke as a freshman is similar to Perry.
“I think they’re both aggressive personalities,” he said. “They both had confidence in the routine they were doing.”
But there are differences that might help Burke as the season wears on. Before college, most gymnasts compete exclusively for a club, which has only a handful of meets each year. Burke competed for her high school team, which competes around 15 times a season, in addition to training with nationally-renowned coach Leonard Isaacs at American Academy of Gymnastics in Wheeling, Ill.
Perry didn't have the same preparation in high school as Burke.
“As a freshman, that was probably the hardest thing that I struggled with was going from only competing five times a year to competing 16 times,” Perry said. “I literally had a meltdown in the middle of my freshman year because I was just drained. I was so tired.”
Perry said she talked to Burke a couple weeks ago and told Burke to pace herself. But when Burke told Perry she competed for her high school, Perry told her she would be fine.
MU missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships the past four seasons. This year is Perry’s last shot at getting MU to NCAAs, and she said Burke will play a big role.
“She’s strong on all four events, and I feel like in the past couple years, half of our lineup has been strong and the other half has been not very strong,” Perry said. “Overall, our lineups are just a lot stronger this year, and Mary is definitely critical.”
Although Burke has started to make a name for herself at MU, she hesitates to talk about herself, and that’s how she’s always been.
“She was a team player,” said Guest, Burke’s high school coach. “Often times I would take her off events, allow others to compete.”
Guest said Burke keeps things in perspective. She chose MU over Illinois and Iowa, where her sister Katie was a gymnast. Burke credits her sister with starting her in gymnastics.
“As much as I love my sister, I kind of wanted to get away from what she did and kind of make my own path,” Burke said.
Burke has hit the ground running at MU, just like she did as a freshman in high school, when she won the all-around state title. Guest recalls the hype that surrounded Burke.
“I would have people come up to me on our staff and say, ‘I have to go see Mary Burke,’” Guest said.
Not that Burke understood why.