Archive for Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fernandez prepares to continue gymnastics career in Big 10

June 28, 2007

The transition any high school student faces upon becoming a NCAA Division 1 student-athlete can be intimidating. Demanding practice schedules and grueling training can exact a toll on young athletes making the move from high school to college.

For Melissa Fernandez, the pressures of being a student-athlete at a major university should not be much of an issue. Fernandez, a recent graduate of Eudora High School and soon-to-be member of the University of Illinois gymnastics team, is already accustomed to putting in more than a little hard work.

"The maximum number of hours we are allowed to train in college is 20 each week," Fernandez said. "So it will actually end up being less training time for me."

Fernandez begins each summer day with a short trip east to Olathe for an 8 a.m. training session. After five hours of fine-tuning her skills on the balance beam and polishing up her floor routine, she heads to the pool to earn some money as a lifeguard.

The seemingly massive 26-hour per week time commitment is nothing new for Fernandez. During past gymnastics seasons she has spent roughly the same amount of time training. Intense as it may seem, the rigorous schedule has yet to dim her enthusiasm for the sport.

"I've always liked the challenge of gymnastics," Fernandez said. "All the other sports were always just a little too easy for me."

Come August all her hard work could start paying off in a big way when Fernandez joins the ranks of the Fighting Illini.

The University of Illinois chased away seven other schools deeply involved in the recruitment of Fernandez. She received visits from schools across the country including big-name schools with successful gymnastics programs such as Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Oklahoma. The gymnast initially showed the most interest in Oklahoma, but the school filled all of its scholarships before she made her decision. After making a trip to the campus of Boise State, Fernandez declined the school's scholarship offer and decided to look elsewhere. It only took her one visit to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., to make up her mind for good.

"I just fell in love with the school and decided that was where I wanted to go to college," Fernandez said. "I really enjoyed the girls on the Illinois team and the atmosphere up there is great."

She officially signed with Illinois last November, making her one of four incoming freshmen who could help an already ascending program reach the top of the Big Ten Conference standings.

"We have an incoming class with a lot of potential," Illinois head gymnastics coach Bob Starkey said. "In events like floor exercise or balance beam Melissa could have an immediate impact."

Illinois finished the 2006 season ranked No. 20 nationally, an improvement over its No. 25 ranking the previous year. The Illinois coaching staff envisions Fernandez as an all-around gymnast who could participate in the vault and uneven bars events in addition to floor exercise and balance beam.

Fernandez said she considers the balance beam her strongest event, but she could see action in any of the four events as a freshman. Her second-place finish in the balance beam competition coupled with a seventh-place finish in the floor exercise at the 2006 Nationals suggests her versatility. At the national meet she participated at Level 10, meaning she faced the toughest competition in her age group.

The national competition was just one of many for the busy athlete last year. She traveled to Virginia Beach, Va., and Tampa, Fla. to participate in meets and catch the attention of college talent scouts.

Since gymnastics is not offered as an official sport at Eudora High, Fernandez has needed to travel to various locations around the country to compete during her career. Her experience is not uncommon among gymnasts, however.

"It's fairly common to find recruits who train year-round, not necessarily through a high school program," Starkey said. "With the help of a club affiliate, an athlete has the chance to train all 365 days of the year."

An avid gymnast since age five, Fernandez has sacrificed other activities in pursuit of success on the balance beam. She played volleyball and ran track in middle school and participated in cheerleading for three years in high school but never considered a future in any sport other than gymnastics.

Fernandez said cheerleading was enjoyable but she eventually realized that in order to reach her potential she would need to devote more time and energy to her gymnastics training.

To many people, 26 hours of toil every week may seem a steep price to pay for a sport. But in Fernandez's case, a willingness to pay her dues has bought her something special: the chance to compete at a level most athletes never will.

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