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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Gymnasts making leap to college

By Dennis Anderson
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gymnasts from Hawai'i, who have rarely created more than a ripple on the national collegiate scene, are generating waves of interest across the Pacific this year.

Hawai'i gymnasts who will compete in college include, clockwise from top, Erin Geary (Punahou), Elyse Wong (Punahou), Ina Higashi-Izumi (Kalani), Sierra Jacobs (Maryknoll) and Maile Waiwaiole (Pearl City).

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Six high school seniors have been invited to join prominent Mainland college teams and four juniors are expected to draw plenty of interest as well.

Hawai'i Homegrown Report, the most complete source of information on student-athletes from Hawai'i at Mainland colleges, could find only three local gymnasts on college teams last season. One 2002 graduate walked on for the season that starts next month.

Things will change dramatically in 2003-04. Three girls signed scholarship agreements during the early national letter of intent period last month; another accepted an invitation to walk on and compete for a scholarship next year and two more are deciding among offers they have received.

Hawai'i girls gymnastics appear to be entering a Golden Era.

"More Hawai'i clubs are producing upper-level gymnasts than ever before," says Joe Rapp, director/head coach of the Hawaiian Island Twisters Gymnastics Club, which will be sending three graduates to college teams next year.

"Kids used to give in to peer pressure at age 14 and 15 and quit," Rapp said. "A lot of them would want to do things that are easier; normal kid stuff like hanging out at the mall.

"With all the emphasis recently on getting college degrees to get a good job, making more of a commitment to their education and being more responsible as young adults, instead of relying on their parents to pay for it, they are going for scholarships."

And getting them.

Ina Higashi-Izumi (Kalani) and Sierra Jacobs (Maryknoll) of the Hawaiian Island Twisters will receive gymnastics scholarships at Cal State-Fullerton and Brigham Young, respectively.

Elyse Wong (Punahou) of Kokokahi Gymnastics Team has signed a scholarship agreement with the University of California.

Erin Geary (Punahou) of the Hawaiian Island Twisters has accepted an invitation to walk on at Stanford and compete for a scholarship in 2004. Geary will be coached by Kristen Smyth, a 1988 Maryknoll High graduate who was one of the most decorated Hawai'i gymnasts of the last 15 years.

"The coaching out there is strong and there are more programs in Hawai'i now," said Smyth, a three-time All-American who was chosen University of California's Gymnast of the Decade for the '90s. "The level of gymnastics is definitely better" than in her developmental years.

Also, Smyth pointed out, because of the Patsy Mink amendment (Title IX), "the future of collegiate gymnastics is good. There is more opportunity for young girls, more opportunity to stay in gymnastics to earn a scholarship."

High school seniors who have received offers but have not decided yet include Maile Waiwaiole (Pearl City) of Rainbow Gymnastics Academy and Ashley Borum (Seabury Hall of Haiku) of Maui Gymnastics Center.

"We are doing a better job at keeping kids from losing interest when they get into high school and there are a lot of distractions," said Maui Gymnastics owner and head coach Sharla Baker, "and the college programs are much improved."

Typical of the reception Hawai'i gymnasts are receiving at Mainland colleges is Cal State-Fullerton coach Julie Knight's reaction to Quinn Nelson, a June graduate of Waiakea High and a walkon from Pacific Gymnastics in Hilo.

"She's doing fantastic, much better than we ever expected," Knight said. "Quinn is in contention to make our starting lineup in both vaulting and floor exercise." Fullerton's first meet of the season is Jan. 12 against Utah State.

Knight is another Mainland college coach who says, "The level of gymnasts coming out of Hawai'i is much better the last five years because of the coaching and so many more programs."

She gave a full scholarship to Higashi-Izumi, who will graduate from Kalani High in May.

"I feel fortunate to have signed such a talented gymnast" as Higashi-Izumi, Knight said. "Ina is highly skilled on all four events and should be in contention for an all-around spot her freshman year."

Alissa Onaga of the Hawaiian Island Twisters reportedly is on Knight's short list of recruits for 2004.

Other members of the Class of '04 likely to receive college offers include Natasha Fagasa and Christie Chinaka of the Twisters and Faye Nelson of Pacific Gymnastics.

Nelson wants to go to the University of Oregon, says her mother, coach and Pacific Gymnastics owner, Candi Nelson. Rapp says Fagasa is leaning toward California-Davis.

Most of these 17- and 18-year-old competitors started taking classes when they were 6 or 7 and began competing before they were 10. Why?

Higashi-Izumi had already done tumbling when she started gymnastics at age 7. A year later she competed for the first time.

"My mom told me that when I watched Olympic gymnastics on TV when I was little, I told her, 'I wouldn't mind doing that." So Ina's mother enrolled her in classes as soon as she was old enough.

Wong, who is headed for Stanford, has been a gymnast for 13 years, starting classes at age 5. She began competing when she was in the third grade and has been at Level 10 — the highest competence below the elite class — for six years.

Jacobs, who is going to BYU, said: "My mom put me into class when I was around 6. I could do the splits at a very early age."

Unlike many early starting athletes, Jacobs and the other members of the class of 2003 have never lost their zeal for the sport.

"She's got a ton of potential," BYU coach Brad Cattermole. "We've been watching her improve over the years and we think her best competitive days are ahead of her. College programs are built on late bloomers and she's coming on like gangbusters."