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Spokane prepares to host USA Gymnastics’ Level 9 Western Championships

UPDATED: Wed., May 8, 2019, 8:23 p.m.

By Jason Shoot For The Spokesman-Review

Don’t fall. Stick the landings.

Sounds simple enough.

Northwest Gymnastics Academy’s Alyssa Helbling, a ninth-grader at University High School, will compete alongside nearly 500 gymnasts this week at the USA Gymnastics’ Level 9 Western Championships meet slated to begin Friday at the Spokane Convention Center.

The three-day competition represents the culmination of the club gymnastics season for these athletes, all of whom advanced through state and regional meets to qualify. Helbling placed second in the Senior 4 division at the Region 2 Championships last month in Oregon to earn her spot at Western Nationals, which includes all gymnasts west of the Mississippi River.

A foot injury last year hampered Helbling’s ability to add new skills to her routines, but she has cleaned up her existing routines to “get as close to perfection as possible,” she said.

Her all-around score of 36.625 at regionals was her best mark since moving to Level 9 in January 2018. Her score of 9.150 on the balance beam was her highest mark in that discipline since April 2017.

“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t very consistent on the beam,” said Helbling, 15. “I’d fall off a lot or have big wobbles. That’s what happens when you’re under pressure.”

The pressure will be intense this weekend, but the meet also serves as a measuring stick to see where Helbling’s skills stand in relation to others as she advances toward Level 10, the top level in U.S. gymnastics short of elite and national teams.

“For Level 9s, the highest level I can make it is Western Nationals,” she said. “It’s the biggest meet I can make it to. When I walk in there, it will seem like any other meet. But when the gymnasts start competing and doing their skills, I can tell it’s Westerns. There will be a lot better tricks, and the form will be a lot cleaner.”

Event director Nadine Burgess, owner and coach at Spokane Gymnastics, said she finds watching Level 9 gymnasts “a little more exciting to watch” than their Level 10 counterparts.

“They’re still up-and-coming athletes,” Burgess said. “They still have more nerves. They’re not quite perfect. They can have a great day or they can have a challenge. … The coaches’ reactions are different when (gymnasts) hit a skill or when they pull it off.

“It’s like college versus professional. There is a difference, but there’s a little more heart because this truly is a really big deal. Parents are really excited. It’s a big deal, and they’re traveling across the country to a competition for their daughter.”

Burgess was the event director when Western Nationals first came to Spokane in 2015. She said the scandals that have rocked USA Gymnastics have shaken the sport in recent years, and she said she returned to her post as event director to ensure “it’s a well-organized competition for them with no unnecessary stress, and they can perform at their best.

“There are challenges within the industry, and it’s been a rough couple of years. The athletes are the ones who have gone through the most with the uncertainty of the whole organization. We have something they can count on – consistency. Athletes needed something we can provide more than ever.

“For me, it’s more important than it was four years ago when everything was going hunky-dory.”

Helbling sounded like a gymnast unaffected by outside forces. She is focused squarely on the competition.

“My goal for every meet is 4 for 4. I don’t want to fall on anything,” Helbling said. “I want to make the changes I did in practice and stick my landings. And I’m hoping to place on the floor or the bars. Those are my two best events.”

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