Raleigh teen seeking national gymnastics glory

CorrespondentMay 13, 2011 

Sydney Snead had no idea how many medals she had earned during her six years of gymnastics competition, so she counted them. There are 175.

They hang on colorful ribbons from two decorative curtain rods attached to her bedroom walls.

Those medals, along with a variety of plaques and trophies, came with plenty of sweat, tears and practice.

"I definitely worked hard to get them," said Snead, 13.

She hopes to add more hardware to her collection today, when she competes in the U.S. Gymnastics Junior Olympics National Championship in Long Beach, Calif.

Snead tumbled her way onto the national stage after finishing in first place on the regional level.

At the national meet, she'll compete against girls her own age at Level 10, gymnastics' highest division.

Last month, Snead placed first in balance beam and floor exercise at the U.S. Gymnastics Region 8 Championship in New Orleans. She also won gold overall, earning 38.05 points out of a possible 40. As if coming out on top regionally were not enough, that score is her personal record.

Self-confidence is what sets this young gymnast apart, said her coach, Heidi Stanovich, co-owner of Sonshine Gymnastics in Holly Springs, where Snead trains.

"Sydney's strength is her ability to stay calm in nerve-wracking situations," Stanovich said. "We call her 'Steady Eddy.' "

At 4 feet 10 and weighing 85 pounds, Snead has the broad, sculpted shoulders and powerfully muscled legs a gymnast needs to perform high level skills.

On a recent afternoon, she joined a handful of gymnasts at Sonshine warming up for practice. The girls sat on a mat with their legs spread wide, bending over from the waist until their entire upper bodies stretched out flat on the floor, face down.

"Sydney is strong; she's flexible, and she has a steady head," Stanovich said. "It's a great thing."

Snead also is a perfectionist.

"I just try to be the best," she said.

In the grueling sport of gymnastics, winning scores are attained not by crossing a finish line first or scoring a goal, but on the opinion of a judging panel. A perfectly pointed toe may mean the difference between a silver medal and a gold one.

Meets consist of four events: vault, uneven parallel bars, balance beam and floor exercise.

Snead has mastered the concentration skills she needs to focus on the task at hand.

"A lot of gymnastic skill is mental," she said. "To prepare, I try to stay focused. I don't pay attention to my competitors or their scores. Watching others perform and watching their scores adds pressure."

She takes her events one at a time. Her confidence comes from knowing she has practiced her routines many times, and she has no fear. The same cannot be said for her mom, Michelle Snead, who gets so nervous when her daughter performs that she can hardly bear to watch.

"It's a very nerve-wracking sport for a parent to watch. You have no control," she said. "You see them work so hard all year, and you just want them to do their best."

Snead's favorite event is her floor exercise, which her coach choreographed. She has been honing perfection in that routine for two years, changing only her tumbling moves as she adds more difficult elements. She executes her routine to the rock-and-roll tune "Johnny B. Goode."

"She's a real performer, like a little rock star," Stanovich said.

Snead doesn't limit her perfectionist tendencies to the gym. She's an eighth-grader and an A student at Durant Road Middle School in North Raleigh. Even though many elite athletes opt out of a traditional education in favor of home schooling, Snead wants to lead a normal life, for now at least.

Like other young teens, she enjoys hanging out with friends and loves to spend her weekends watching her siblings play the sports they enjoy.

Snead trains five hours a day, four days a week. She has Wednesdays and weekends off to give her body a chance to rest.

Looming in the future are the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Snead would love to compete. But that would require doubling up on her training, which would change her lifestyle.

She and her parents are taking a wait-and-see attitude about that.

Besides, NCAA coaches will be on hand at the Junior Olympics. Snead hopes to impress them, because she would like to get a scholarship to a college with a good gymnastics program.

Snead also relies on her faith. She prays every day - with her teammates and on her own.

"I pray that everyone has a good meet, and that everyone will be safe," she said. "I also pray to do my best, and I give thanks for my ability to perform gymnastics."

So far, her prayers have been answered.

terisaylor@hotmail.com

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