Senior conquers adversity for ascendancy
While working on her balance beam routine at a recent practice, Missouri senior Jodie Heinicka paused, almost in mid-stride.
“Come on, Whit!” She yelled, looking straight ahead, seemingly at a very important spot on the wall.
On the opposite end of the gym, behind Heinicka, teammate Whitney Crater began her sprint toward the vault, launching skyward in a blur of motion at the end of the runway.
Moments later, Crater safely returned to earth, Heinicka resumed her own practice. Just another example of Heinicka doing what she always does.
“Jodie’s our team cheerleader,” coach Rob Drass said. “The go-to girl. If you’re having a bad day, she’s going to pump you up. She’s going to get behind you and help you out.”
So there she was again Friday night, in a familiar pose. Her hands cupped to her mouth, head leaning forward. Her voice was the loudest in the building as she cheered on her teammates to a 195.250-192.575 victory against Southeast Missouri State.
Never mind the bag of ice strapped to her aching right big toe, which she’d caught underneath the springboard during her vault earlier that night, or the fact that it was her own moment to shine. The last home meet of her career.
It almost never happened.
Her sophomore year in high school, Heinicka took sixth at nationals, drawing the attention of recruiters around the country. But she faltered the following year, nearly derailing her best prospects.
“I really did horribly at nationals my junior year, and so all the big schools that had been looking at me stopped contact,” she said.
She credits assistant coach Paul Scardina with convincing Drass to take another look.
“If Paul wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Scardina met Heinicka previously while he was teaching at a gymnastics summer camp in Pennsylvania and was struck by her dedication and eagerness to learn.
“After having had the opportunity to work with her for a few years leading up, I had a firsthand look at what this kid was capable of doing in an environment that was conducive for her,” he said.
She was plagued by injuries her first two seasons with the Tigers. Midway through her freshman year Heinicka tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus in her left knee on a dismount from what is, ironically, her best event, the bars. It took almost three weeks before the swelling went down enough to even have surgery.
She came back her sophomore year, after nine months of rehab. But in the second meet of the season, after another dismount, something felt wrong in her knee. She had re-torn her meniscus. The doctor gave her two options, have another surgery and miss the entire season, or stay in the bars lineup and deal with the pain.
“I opted to compete and deal with it because I felt like the team needed me on bars,” Heinicka said. “I competed the rest of the season and I was in and out of the lineup because I was dealing with pain and I had a lot of mental struggles just because I had been through so much, and I was having a hard time dealing with it. I felt like I wasn’t living up to what I could have been.”
All that changed once she was healthy.
She’s won 10 titles on the uneven bars this season alone, including the 9.925 she posted on Friday. She currently ranks first in the region on the event, is tied for fifth nationally, and holds five of the top 11 bars scores in program history.
Heinicka’s also one of only two Tigers to ever record a 9.950 on the event and was the first Tiger to successfully perform one of the most difficult bars dismounts, the full-twisting double-layout — two back flips with one twist in a straight body position. It was an easier variation of that same dismount that had led to her injuries. She added the twist this year and now performs it regularly.
“Jodie’s about as tough as they come,” Drass said.
So when Heinicka came up limping with her toe swollen and bruised after her first event, the vault, on Friday, there was no way she was about to let it stop her from competing.
“It was killing me, but I just tried to put it out of my head for the 30 seconds of bars and minute and a half on beam,” Heinicka said. “That’s two minutes total that I had to put it out of my head. That’s just what you’ve got to do when you get to the end of it like this.”
Crowd stops to watch Bunny’s home finale
Chalk up another two event titles for senior Lauren “Bunny” Schwartzman. Schwartzman won both the balance beam and the floor exercise on Friday, scoring a 9.925 and a 9.900.
That makes 44 event titles over the course of her four seasons with the Tigers. She’s currently tied for No. 1 in the nation on balance beam, leading the team to a No. 4 ranking in the event.
Schwartzman is also the only Tiger to ever score a perfect 10. She accomplished the feat twice on beam her sophomore year.
So what does it feel like to get a 10?
“Kind of surreal,” Schwartzman said. “I remember the first time I got it I didn’t think that it would even happen because I didn’t think, honestly, that my routine was a 10 routine. I was kind of in shock. I remember everyone coming up to me screaming and giving me hugs.”
Her parents were there for the second 10 routine, at an away meet in Schwartzman’s home state of Texas. It was the last away meet of the season, and her score helped the Tigers score a team record 197.475.
“That was a good year,” she said.
Still, it’s her floor exercise that is her favorite event. Done to a mix of “Disco Inferno” and “Car Wash,” it stole the show on Friday. Schwartzman’s smile during the routine was visible from any seat in the building.
“What separates Bunny is her performances,” coach Rob Drass said. “She’s just a crowd stopper. The crowd stops to watch whatever she’s doing.”
Performing comes naturally for Schwartzman. She started gymnastics at 6, and used to do cartwheels down the grocery store aisle as a kid. The daughter of an accountant, Schwartzman can rattle off scores from her freshman year and makes it a point to look up other team’s scores and crunch numbers after a meet.
Sophomore Julie Abaray said Schwartzman has become a role model and mentor for the team.
As her last home meet of the season came to a close, Schwartzman had some advice for the younger Tigers.
“It goes so fast, so fast,” she said. “I told the freshmen, ‘Live it up, take it in, because before you know it it’s over.’”