Her routine nearly finished, Missouri senior Andrea Nervig flies off the high bar.
She is 10 feet above the ground and needs to complete two flips before gravity tears her back down to the mat.
Then she needs to stick a perfect landing and smile for the judges. There is a lot to remember in her complicated routine, but Nervig never thinks about it.
Overthinking her routines can lead to overcompensation and missed routines, Nervig said.
“We talk about going on autopilot,” Missouri coach Rob Drass said. “It’s like walking up the stairs; you don’t really consciously think about each step. Your body knows how to do it. “
While gliding through their routines, the Tigers are thinking that a strong performance at the regional championships Saturday in University Park, Pa., will get them to their first national championship appearance since 1981.
After a lifetime of practice, the gymnasts have developed an “air awareness” that helps them to know where they are in relation to the ground.
“When you first learn a skill most of the time you have no idea where you are and it takes time and repetitive numbers before you can pick up on if you caught the board wrong,” Lauren Schwartzman said. “You know how to work out of it because you have that awareness.”
Nervig also said that the simpler skills she performed when she was younger helped her to perfect her awareness.
“When you’re at that point of time in your life it teaches you that air awareness, so that when you get to being older and doing the bigger skills, it’s easier to know what’s going on, and what positions you need to be in and where you’re at in the air,” she said.
The ability to find her position in the air is crucial for Nervig on the uneven bars, where she performs a number of advanced combinations and transitions.
She begins her routine by leapfrogging over the lower bar and grabbing the second bar. She swings to the top and does a full turn while in a handstand 8 feet off the ground. Then, facing away from the lower bar, she lets herself fall forward and uses her momentum to perform a straddle back to handstand, releasing the top bar and landing on top of the lower bar.
“If you relax when you’re on the bar you’re just going to go everywhere,” she said. “You just have to stay tight and keep pushing strong.”
Nervig’s greatest trouble this year has come on the Tkatchev release near the end of her routine. Swinging under the top bar, she releases and lets her momentum carry her over the top and back to the other side of the bar. While coming down, Nervig has missed the bar and fallen more this year than in past seasons.
“It’s hard when you fall because you don’t want to, but because you’ve fallen you want to finish the routine on a bigger note and finish it perfect to prove that you know how to do it,” Nervig said.
Unlike the other events, the vault gives the gymnast one chance to complete a perfect skill and landing.
Whitney Crater has averaged 9.796 on vault during her freshman season and has scored a 9.80 or above in the past seven meets.
Crater performs a Yurchenko full twist. Starting 62 feet away, she runs toward the vault and begins with a roundoff onto the springboard. Her hands hit in front of the board, then she lands backward on the vault and does a back handspring, heels over head, onto the horse. Pushing off, Crater completes a full twist and rights herself before sticking the landing.
Crater said she can tell before she vaults into the air whether she will have a good score.
“If it’s crooked or if I go off something other than the board, then I know I just have to make it,” she said.
No room for error
A crooked handspring is correctable on vault, but it has larger consequences on the 4-inch wide balance beam.
Schwartzman’s most difficult pass is similar to Crater’s vault. Looking ahead at the end of the beam, she completes a roundoff back handspring like Crater, but then, while facing the other direction than she began, she completes the handspring and adds a back flip in the layout position, keeping her body perfectly straight.
Schwartzman’s efforts this season have landed her a 9.90 average and Missouri’s first two 10s. She said her shoulders are the most important factor in keeping her balance while upside down and backward.
“If I’m crooked on a back handspring, I use my shoulders and my hips to pull it back on the beam,” she said.
Floor exercise has been Missouri’s top event this season. The Tigers average 49.25 and have set five school records in 2004.
Rachel Bridges has been Missouri’s most consistent gymnast in an event that comprises two distinct elements: tumbling and dancing.
The dancing aspect is not only a tool the gymnast uses to get from one corner to another between tumbles, but also is an important time to impress the judges.
“Dance is very important because you’re trying to pull the judges in and the crowd in to get them to watch you,’’ Bridges said. “It’s all about presentation.”
If awkward dancing distracts them, the judges are more likely to score the tumbling lower, Schwartzman said.
“You want to do it enough to where it looks like you’re having fun and it’s not forced movement,” she said. “If you can’t do a certain dance combination and it looks awkward the judges, will know that it’s not easy for you to do.”
Bridges begins her routine with her most challenging tumbling pass, a roundoff back handspring double pike.
Beginning like Schwartzman on beam with a roundoff into a back handspring, Bridges then adds another back handspring to launch herself into the air, where she does two back flips in pike position before landing.
In the pike position, she bends her body to a 90-degree angle at the waste and pins her arms to her sides.
Stepping out of bounds after a tumbling pass is a large deduction, but in most arenas, the floor dips slightly in the corners, giving the gymnasts an idea of how close they are to the edge.
Easing through the big techniques helps Nervig to concentrate on the little things that will get her the highest scores. She said it never enters her mind that she is often flying 12 feet above the mat.
“I’ve actually never thought of it that way,” she said.