Cheerleading in high school provided break for Missouri gymnast Rachel Updike

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | 10:07 p.m. CDT
Gymnast Rachel Updike performs on the vault during Missouri's meet against LSU on Feb. 8 at the Hearnes Center.

COLUMBIA — Rachel Updike is a nine-time Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Week. She is the only national qualifier from the Missouri gymnastics team last season. She is an All-American and the winner of six events this season.

And sometimes, all she needs is to get out of the gym.

Saturday's meet

The Tigers will face the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz.

The meet follows Missouri's 196.300-194.125 loss to Illinois last Friday. 

Several Tigers matched or set career high scores at the meet, including junior Taylor Medrea with a 9.775 on the balance beam and a 9.800 on the floor, senior Tori Howard with a 9.900 on the floor, and junior Mackenzie McGill with a 9.850 on both the uneven bars and the beam.

Missouri has faced Arizona 24 times, with an overall record of 6-18 in the series.

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The sophomore has been competing in gymnastics since she was 5.

"Gymnastics was, like, my whole life," Updike said.

So while attending high school in Olathe, Kan., Updike joined the cheerleading team.

"I did cheer my junior and senior year for fun, to get away from the gym," Updike said.

Besides the tumbling aspect of cheerleading, in which Updike and a few others on the team participated, cheerleading offered a different atmosphere than gymnastics.

For one thing, though gymnastics has team scores, a main component of the sport is individual. Cheerleading allowed Updike to compete alongside teammates.

"She loved being part of a team," Olathe Northwest cheerleading coach Christy LeManske said.

In high school, Updike participated in club gymnastics with Kansas Gymnastics Dance and Cheer, competing against other top gymnasts at the state, regional and even national level. Cheerleading offered a release from this environment, which was "so competitive and so intense," LeManske said. While the cheer squad also competed, it was "not near the level of gymnastics."

Not only that, but cheerleading also gave Updike something more simple — a chance to be just a high school student.

"We were given an opportunity that many gymnasts are not, and that is a social life outside of the gym," sophomore McKenzie Fechter said in an email. Fechter participated in both gymnastics and cheerleading with Updike and is now a member of the University of Washington's gymnastics team.

"Rach and I were given an option that would allow us to have everything we ever wanted — gymnastics and high school," she said.

Updike and Fechter both reminisced about how excited they would get preparing to cheer at games, even getting to leave gymnastics practice early.

"We would rush into the bathroom and get ready on our way to the high school," Fechter said. "We would always get in trouble from our coaches for being late." But Fechter and Updike didn't mind, appreciating the chance to be part of a high school team.

But Updike still identifies herself as a gymnast. "I wasn't really the outgoing cheerleader, like 'rah rah!'" she said.

"She's right about not always being enthusiastic," LeManske said with a laugh. "The athlete and competitor came out in her tumbling. Everyone wanted to watch."

In fact, the Missouri gymnastics team can't imagine Updike as a cheerleader.

"When cheerleaders come to our meets, everyone will be like 'I can't believe you did that!'" Updike said.

Updike's fellow Tiger gymnast, sophomore Laura Kappler, was also a cheerleader in high school. While the team can see Kappler as a cheerleader, they can't see Updike, with her quieter demeanor, in that role, Updike said.

And ultimately, neither could Updike. 

"It wasn't even really a decision," Updike said.

After committing herself to Missouri gymnastics, Updike has seen considerable success, never scoring below a 9.750 on the vault. She does this without even practicing on the vault during the week — she doesn't want to injure her foot, which has been hurting all season.

"I don't even really think about it," Updike said of her vault success, her right foot resting in a bucket of ice as she quietly watched the rest of the team practice.

This will to compete showed through even in cheerleading. After finishing a stunt with jarring landing, Updike insisted on continuing to cheer.

"The mom in me is protective of the flyers," LeManske said. But Updike had "tenacity."

From the results Updike has had with the Tigers so far, it's clear that was never in doubt.

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