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If you think of the four events of an all-around gymnastics competition as musical pieces, then the vault is a single, piercing high note that must be nailed without warmup. During the floor exercise, and on the uneven bars and balance beam, a gymnast has the opportunity to ease into her routine -- to find her rhythm and loosen her vocal cords before attempting the toughest passages. A mistake? She shakes if off, recovers and carries on.
But the vault is sudden, explosive and eye-blinkingly fast. The event -- eighty feet of full-blast running, a sudden planting of the feet on a springboard that transfers horizontal energy and velocity to vertical, then an upside-down ricochet off a platform that hurls a body more than ten feet in the air -- is over in less time than it takes to hop onto the uneven bars.
"It takes totally different qualities than the other events," says Connie Maloney, who manages the women's Junior Olympic program for USA Gymnastics. "It's an adrenaline rush," adds John Figueroa, an assistant coach for the University of Denver's nationally ranked women's gymnastics team. "On the beam and balance bar, you have to be calm and deliberate. But the vault is a gunshot from the beginning. You've got to like going into a roller coaster."
Under new NCAA rules, a gymnast has only a single opportunity to get it right in a meet. Years of training and sweat are compressed into three seconds, and a misstep can be catastrophic. The result is that gymnasts tend to either love the vault or hate it.
There's no doubt where twenty-year-old Heather Huffaker sits. "I loooovvve the vault," she says. "The whole dancing thing isn't for me."
As of mid-January, there was arguably no college vaulter in the country better than Huffaker, now in her second year at DU. On a recent day, Huffaker is dressed in pre-practice sweats and flip-flops encrusted with rhinestones. She has an angular face -- a bit of Courteney Cox -- topped off with the required ponytail, and a classic floor gymnast's build: short, broad-shouldered and muscular. Like most Division I student-athletes other than football and basketball players, she's a breath of fresh air, because she has the perspective to know that her sport is, well, just a sport. "I take it seriously when I'm here," she says, "but it's not like I live and breathe it."
She's just come off an exhilarating performance at a meet in Utah, where she won the balance beam, the floor exercise and, of course, the vault, her specialty. The vault title -- she earned a 9.95, or five one-hundredths of a point from perfection -- was her eleventh in less than two years at DU.
And there were plenty of victories before that. Like most serious mat rats, Huffaker started tumbling with her baby teeth still intact and has spent more hours in leotards than she can remember. Yet before she hit the fourth grade, she'd already separated herself from her classmates.
"By the time she was ten, I knew this kid had the ability to make it to the national championships in vaulting," recalls Rich Treviño, the owner of Treviño Gymnastics in DeSoto, Texas, and a gymnastics coach for more than thirty years. Treviño remembers one day in particular, when he took the ten-year-old Huffaker to a facility with a soft landing area for the first time. He explained how she should attempt a complicated vault. "I talked her through this incredible gymnastic vault -- a handspring, front layout, full twist -- and she had it nailed in three tries. And that was when I said, 'Okay, here we go.'"
Early on, Huffaker's coaches discovered she didn't need to be pushed or browbeaten into taking gymnastics seriously; she handled that herself. "We called her 'Toughie Huffy,'" Treviño says. "She was so self-driven, self-motivated."
Her parents were mostly hands-off. "My mother said I could quit at any time," Huffaker says. Sometimes it seemed like a good idea.
"I remember wanting to quit in junior high. I wanted a social life," she says. "I was never able to go to football games, because we always had meets." Luckily, she eventually found time to attend one: "I was like, what's the big deal?"
As Huffaker climbed through the skill levels in gymnastics (one to ten, after which the gymnast is considered "elite"), it became clear she had something that no one else in the area did -- more strength, perhaps, or simply less fear. "At meets, people from all over would stop just to watch her vault," Treviño says.
By the end of her senior year, she had taken the state vaulting title three years in a row, and finished out her high school career with a national championship.
Coach Figueroa, who is also DU's head women's gymnastics recruiter, says he started chasing after Huffaker at the start of her junior year. "She was the best in the country," he points out. "She wasn't hard to spot."
NCAA gymnasts are about a cycle or two behind their counterparts in the Olympics. That is, the same moves Olympians were doing in Sydney in 2000, or in Atlanta in 1996, are just now appearing in college mat rooms and at NCAA competitions. The average spectator, whose gymnastics fix comes only once every four years, probably can't tell the difference.
For competitors, though, there's a lifetime of difference. Sometime in their early teens, top-ranked girls make the decision whether or not to peel off from the real world of boyfriends and SATs and proms and enter the hermetic life of an elite gymnast, where they start hammering their bodies with the forty-to-sixty-hour-a-week training programs demanded by budding Olympians.
Even then, the odds are astronomically small and, to a large degree, dictated by birthdate. Only seven young women can be on a given Olympic gymnastics team. If a young gymnast is fifteen years old for one and nineteen for the next, she may simply have missed the boat.
Huffaker made her own choice at about fifteen. "A lot of times when people go elite, they end up not going to public school, which I really wanted to do," she says. "And when I got older, I really wanted to go to college, too." Treviño says there's no doubt she could have taken aim at the Olympics and had a realistic shot. But a full-ride college scholarship isn't bad, either.
To a college gymnastics coach, a vaulting routine is like a dowry -- a gift that comes with the girl. The vast majority of competitive vaulters decide very early on what their move will be; with few exceptions, they stick with it for the remainder of their careers.
Treviño says Huffaker started laying the groundwork for her signature vault early in her freshman year of high school; by her junior year, she'd nailed it. She's been fine-tuning it ever since.
Called a "quarter-on layout with a full," it involves running down the approach, performing a cartwheel, landing onto the springboard on her feet, pushing off the table with her hands (the vaulting "horse" was mostly discontinued about four years ago, replaced with an angled, padded platform) and flipping in a layout a full 360 degrees while also twisting 360 degrees. And finally, of course, landing straight up on her feet.
A perfect vault is rare. Last year, however, Huffaker completed one -- only the second time in DU's history that a vaulter had performed without a mistake. Most years, such an accomplishment would have put her head and shoulders above her teammates. But the current team has yielded several peers.
In 2001, DU finished the year ranked twelfth in the country -- its best ever -- and became the first small private school to make it to the NCAA Division I gymnastics finals. This year the team, which has only one senior, has climbed as high as ninth in the rankings.
Spring has arrived.