By TIM GAYLE
PRATTVILLE – The hours are demanding, the routines increasingly difficult, but Carina Jordan never complains about the eight-hour days she spends practicing gymnastics at the Prattville YMCA.
“I love it,” she said. “Sometimes, I do (think about doing other things). I remember on a vacation, we were going to go somewhere and I was like, ‘wait, no, we can’t, I’ve got practice.’ It could have been summer, it could have been the middle of the season, it really didn’t matter, we still had practice.”
The 14-year-old gymnast recently earned her designation as an Elite gymnast and ventured to Texas on Sunday to compete in the 2017 American Classic on Saturday as one of the nation’s top gymnasts.
“I always wondered what it would be like to be Simone Biles, standing up there on the Olympic podium with her gold medal,” Jordan said. “I wonder if she is like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is surreal,’ or is she like, ‘Yeah, another day in the life of Simone Biles.’ It’s probably somewhere in between.
“When I made Elite, for a good two hours, I couldn’t believe it. Then I was like, ‘OK, on to the next thing.’”
Using Biles as a role model might be an accurate gauge for Jordan. Biles competed in her first American Classic in 2011 at the age of 14. Her 2012 competition in the same event landed her a spot in the USA Gymnastics National Championship that same year and the following year she earned a spot in the World Gymnastics Championships, a prelude to her selection on the U.S. Olympic team.
Jordan’s coach, Elena Bodrikova doesn’t permit her star gymnast to connect the dots, however, knowing there are plenty of pitfalls and setbacks in between.
“Elena’s pretty good about saying, ‘You don’t know anything about what’s going to happen, we just have this meet,’” said YMCA executive program director Otis Reeves. “Then we’ll see what God has in store for you. But you cannot look ahead.”
Jordan was 11 when she first came to the Prattville YMCA to train under Bodrikova, a former member of the Russian national team and a former coach at the Moscow Sports Academy. She had recently had elbow surgery, Bodrikova recalled, as she began her training to become the Prattville YMCA’s first Elite gymnast.
“We started practice and she couldn’t do bars, but she could beam, she can do some vault, she can do some floor and she started working and she grew up,” Bodrikova said. “And I was like, oh my gosh, she’s looking stronger and she has talent. She is so coordinated.”
Gymnastics involves approximately 130,000 girls competing annually in the Junior Olympic program for levels one through 10. Of that group, approximately 1,500 reach Level 10 – the top tier in the program – and roughly 130 of those can reach Elite level.
Reeves, who has been working with gymnastics for more than 30 years, goes back to the days when his daughter competed and Dee Foster and Shea McFall were part of a group that competed at the Elite level, then went to Alabama to help the Crimson Tide contend for national championships.
“I don’t know of anybody who’s been in this circuit, where you’re two meets away from trying to go to national championships, since that group,” Reeves said. “This is new. I have to go back and read and make sure I understand the track they’re on.”
The two most successful Prattville YMCA gymnasts in recent years are Mary Sanders and Sydney Bassett. Sanders earned Junior Elite status, then dropped out of the program because of injuries before qualifying as a high school senior for nationals. Bassett was on a similar track, but made a decision to continue training at her own pace, not a pace that only grows in financial and personal commitment.
“You have to have the right athlete – the right skills or talent, the right body type, the right family,” Reeves said. “You have to be in the right gym. A lot of the gyms won’t give one of their staff the time to do that. And, too, you’d better have the right coach.”
A typical day for Jordan includes four to five hours of gymnastics in the morning before taking a quick break for lunch, then resuming for three more hours. She gets a half day off on Saturdays and Wednesdays and a full day on Sunday. The rest of the time she is working on adding and refining skills to her routine.
“I’ve got to keep thinking about what I have to do, what I still want to make, and keep thinking about my goals,” she said.
Because she got a late start on Elite training, her start value will be lower than many of the gymnasts competing at the American Classic. “She has no margin for error,” Reeves said. Such negative thinking doesn’t enter the mind of the competitive, upbeat Jordan, who said her final workouts this past week included “adding in some of the upgrades that we’ve been working on and just cleaning up a lot of things because I have some areas that don’t look as clean as others. I’m just trying to work on making sure it looks professional.”
To earn her designation as an Elite gymnast, Jordan had to make her compulsory scores at Brestyan’s Las Vegas Invite on Feb. 10-12 and her optional scores at City of Lights Qualifier in Kissimmee, Fla., on Feb. 25-26. To earn an invitation to the American Classic, she would need to turn the head of Valeri Liukin, the USA Gymnastics Women’s National Team coordinator who recently took over for Martha Karolyi.
“They invite her to camp,” Bodrikova said. “We did the skills but she did not look good. But the head coach (Liukin) came and said, ‘You’re OK to try Elite, but you know she’s too old for me.’ Two weeks later, she went into competition. We did a bars routine that was only 10.5, it was too low a score. We did beam, we did floor.
“The coach came to me and said, ‘You know what, I like this girl, she can fight and she looks like a gymnast.’”
To compete at that level, Reeves explained, the Elite gymnast has to add more and more skills to the routine, then polish it.
“A JO (Junior Olympic) or Level 10, that’s a closed level,” Reeves said. “If she can do eight skills, that’s a 10.0, you’re done. The Elite is open ended. You can have a 13, 14, 15, because you’re trying to push up. To find the best, we have to take the cap off and allow more skills in.
“A college (gymnast) may do one of those skills or maybe two. Carina will do five of them in the same routine. That’s the main difference, the amount of skills in a routine. Now, her skills still have to take a step up to be with these girls that are years ahead of you.”
If the explanation is difficult to comprehend, consider the raw results. At the tender age of 14, Jordan is already the subject of an intense recruiting battle between the University of Alabama and the University of Florida. And while that is quite an accomplishment, it’s just another step on the path for Jordan.
“I have expensive tastes and really big dreams,” she said. “I know the only way I’ll be able to make that is if I boost up my gymnastics. I already have two full-ride scholarships, one to Florida and one to the University of Alabama, but there is a lot more. It’s not the end of the road. It’s not like I have a scholarship and, yes, I’m done, don’t have to do this anymore. I still have a lot more work to do. Nobody else is going to stop just because I’ve got a scholarship. I have to keep working.”
At the American Classic, she will compete as one of 11 gymnasts in Squad B, one of four squads competing at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville. Three other gymnasts in her squad are from the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy that is owned and founded by Liukin. The other gymnasts in her squad are from West Virginia, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada and Texas.
It’s a long way from Millbrook. Jordan is the only gymnast from Alabama and is one of only four from the Southeast. Gabrielle Gallentine of Everest Gymnastics in Huntersville, N.C., a suburb of Charlotte, Maeve Hahn of First in Flight Gymnastics of Gastonia, N.C., a suburb of Charlotte, and Lilly Hudson of Florida Elite Gymnastics of St. Augustine, Fla., just south of Jacksonville, are sprinkled throughout the other three squads that make up the 42 gymnasts competing to earn spots on national teams.
If it’s intimidating or overwhelming to Jordan, she doesn’t let on.
“I have some friends who have already been at the Ranch for years and who made Elite before I did,” she said. “This is kind of mean, but my goal is to beat them. I like to beat people. I don’t like to lose.”