COLUMBIA — Adrianne Perry arrives late to Missouri’s gymnastics practice three times a week because of an afternoon class. Often when she's ready to practice her floor routine, the rest of the team is already finished.
No. 13 Missouri at Eastern Michigan with Central Michigan and No. 24 Kent State
WHERE: Ypsilanti, Mich.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
But there's always one person still there. Alicia Hatcher sticks around and watches Perry do her routine.
During a meet this season, Hatcher was struggling and was about to cry before doing her own floor routine. This time, Perry helped Hatcher out.
“Because I know her so well and the fact that she was there for me and was encouraging me, she gave me that actual boost that was like, ‘All right. If she believes in me, I will too,’” Hatcher said.
When Liz Straatmann performs on the uneven bars, Sarah Shire watches. If something looks funny, Shire says one thing and Straatman makes the change.
Same for when Shire performs on the floor. Shire sometimes asks Straatmann to count, “One, two,” to help Shire time her flips.
“It’s something I’ve been hearing since high school,” Shire said. “It’s something that I’ve known, and my body just reacts to it.”
To say the two pairs are close doesn't do their relationships justice. They're like each other's sidekicks — it's hard to imagine one without the other.
Although there are two distinct friendships – Perry and Hatcher, Shire and Straatmann – all four trained together in high school at Great American Gymnastics Express, or GAGE, in Blue Springs.
Although Perry and Hatcher (seniors) are a year older than Shire and Straatmann (juniors), the four spent most weekends together in a group of eight to 10 girls, years before they would become teammates at Missouri.
“We didn’t hang out with our school friends at all,” Hatcher said. “We had our gym friends, and we went out with our gym friends on the weekend.”
One of their favorite weekend activities was dancing at Club Cue in Liberty.
“It was 14 to 18-year-old night and we were like sophomores or juniors. And we thought we were so cool,” Shire said. “We got all dressed up and the girls who were 16 drove us. We wore our little tank tops and jeans and sometimes we put on heels, and we thought we were so cool.”
Most of the time, though, the girls were at the gym. GAGE, owned by nationally-renowned coaches Al and Armine Fong, is one of the elite gymnastics centers in the country. The Fongs and the other coaches demanded a lot.
During practice, gymnasts weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom or talk while waiting in line to perform. Al Fong occasionally stopped practice to have all the gymnasts watch Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool, who both trained at GAGE and competed for the U.S. at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Gymnasts spent 25 to 40 hours a week together at the gym.
But Missouri’s four gymnasts had relationships that extended outside the gym and weekends at Club Cue, and all four of them took different paths to GAGE.
Shire and Straatmann went to school together at Archbishop O’Hara High School in Kansas City. During their sophomore year, they had the same schedule at school and spent Wednesday study halls talking for hours. Every day, Shire’s dad, then a teacher and coach at O’Hara, drove the girls from O’Hara to GAGE for practice in the afternoon.
“We were always together,” Straatmann said. “Eating, changing in the car, practice.”
While Straatmann is reserved and often hesitant, Shire is more direct. Before Straatmann told her story about how she wound up at GAGE, Shire made sure Straatmann knew the question was for her.
“Your story,” Shire told Straatmann.
Because she didn’t see Shire enough already at school and at GAGE, Straatmann stayed at the Shires’ home for days at a time. Straatmann grew up in Washington, Mo., but left for GAGE after her freshman year in high school.
Shire actually knew Perry well before Straatmann. Shire grew up in Columbia and Holts Summit and trained alongside Perry at Jefferson City Gymnastics. When Shire was 13, Shire and Perry’s coach took a job out west. The two trained with their departing coach at Hearnes Center for a few months, but they couldn’t stay there. Tiger Academy, owned by Missouri coach Rob Drass, couldn’t take them in because the Academy didn't have the facilities and resources that Shire and Perry needed.
So Drass, more than four years before becoming Perry and Shire’s coach, suggested a few gyms near Kansas City and St. Louis, one of them GAGE. Unlike Straatmann’s family, which stayed in Washington, Shire’s family moved to Sweet Springs when Shire started at GAGE.
“My family is very close – it’s just me, my mom and my dad,” Shire said. “There was no way we were going to split up, no way we could make it that way. We literally got on I-70 and started driving and just taking exits and just (asking), ‘Is there a house here?’”
Shire, Straatmann and Perry all made sacrifices and left their hometowns to train at GAGE. But Shire's family made the change with her.
Shire and her dad traveled 72 miles to Archbishop O’Hara High School every day, while her mom made the daily 90-mile trek to her work in Mexico. Every morning, the Shires woke up at 5:30 so they could eat breakfast together at 6.
Perry also took Drass’ suggestion and split for GAGE after starting high school, while her family stayed in Columbia. Hatcher's family, from Blue Springs, took Perry in before both girls started at Blue Springs High School.
“It was awkward at first because we were just shoved into the same house,” Perry said.
Hatcher, an only child, saw it as an opportunity to have a sister, and that’s exactly what Perry became.
“We’ve actually been asked a couple times (if they were sisters). A couple times by strangers,” said Perry, who is black, unlike Hatcher, who is white. “OK, this is embarrassing, but we used to dress in the same outfits a lot.”
Hatcher added, “That’s something that you hate to have your parents do if you’re twins, but we did it willingly.”
They both straightened their hair before going dancing and both wore jeans and the same shirts they found at the mall.
“We thought that was really cool,” Perry said.
Although they hit it off right away, things weren’t always cool the first year.
“We fought probably the most that we’ve ever fought that year we lived together because we were kind of sisters and we lived with each other, went to the same school,” Perry said. “We were with each other all day long.”
While they had to make adjustments at home living together for the first time, they stuck close at GAGE. Gymnasts like Humphrey and McCool, the future U.S. Olympians, got most of the attention.
“Sometimes we’d just be like, ‘What about us?’” Perry said.
Shire and Straatmann, who pray together before every meet, have helped each other through several injuries, especially when Straatmann tore her ACL for the second time during her senior year in high school. Straatmann was the first person Shire called during her year at the University of Utah, where she was unhappy with the regimented way in which the team was run.
The two know each other better than anyone, but the whole team gets along well.
“I think it really seems like we’ve all been together for as long as we’ve (Shire and Straatmann) have been together,” Straatmann said. “We’re so close and it’s just a blessing because I know most teams are not like that.”
But the four “GAGE girls” have the longest relationship.
“There is kind of a special thing because I’ve known Liz and Sarah and A (Perry) for so much longer than some of these girls,” Hatcher said.
“But there’s no label or anything,” she added. “You can’t like pick out the GAGE girls in the gym.”
But because they were pushed so hard at GAGE, they have a unique approach to gymnastics that stresses discipline and work ethic.
“We have a different mindset than (gymnasts from other gyms),” Hatcher said. “We’re more likely to say something to our teammate (to push them).”
They know exactly what to say.