At 16, gymnast Elise Heddens walks a fine line to keep life goals on track | ParkRecord.com

At 16, gymnast Elise Heddens walks a fine line to keep life goals on track

For dedicated gymnasts, balance is crucial. It's integral to every skill learned. But to sustain a high level of performance, athletes must balance the rest of their lives, too.

Which is especially true if your parents own the gym. Just ask Elise Heddens, a gymnast at Black Diamond Gymnastics in Kimball Junction, and the daughter of Katy Heddens, the gym's owner.

On Thursday morning, while Elise was going through her final preparations before competing in the 17th annual Winter Classic — a massive invitational that Black Diamond hosts — she said as soon as she could walk, she started practicing gymnastics. In an interview over the phone, Katy said her daughter has been at Black Diamond "literally, since the day she was born."

"It's so much more than gymnastics," Katy said. "It's fun, exciting and hard, but it's more about setting life goals and having opportunities to be a really good teammate and grow your leadership qualities."

Now, at age 16, Elise is still competing, and still picking up on the skills that gymnastics can offer.

"This is where I spend more of my time," she said during a break in practice. "I'm here more than my house — honestly. I only sleep at my house."

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Like other elite gymnasts at Black Diamond, she said she spends about 4 1/2 hours at the gym for each of her five weekly practices, then an additional hour per day while Katy finishes up around the gym. Which means she has to plan her time carefully.

"I get home around 6 every night, so right when I get home I eat dinner quick then go straight to my homework," she said. "I usually work on it for like two to 2 1/2 hours, then I go to sleep and come back and do it again."

When Elise needs a break from gym life, she said her family has a built-in system for taking a day off.

"We have a thing called a 'sanity day,'" Elise said. "We can have one a month, so I can take that for homework or if I want to hang out with friends, or go to a game at school or something, or if I just want to go home. It happens. … I definitely need those days."

During practice, Elise landed a bar routine, rubbed her leather hand strap on a support cable to scrape some of the chalk off, then reapplied chalk from a bowl. The white strip covered her palms, which have been constantly calloused for more than for four years — something she said all gymnasts develop around Level 4. As a Level 9 gymnast, Elise is one of the highest trained athletes at the gym.

"I don't like being looked at differently, because my mom owns (the gym)," she said. "That doesn't change me, because I'm still in here practicing the same amount as (my teammates) are. And they are still pushing me."

In return for her hard work, Elise has reached a level of gymnastics that few achieve, though to draw the attention of colleges she will have to reach Level 10, which is her goal next year. But becoming a Level 10 gymnast will mean another big jump in commitment if she hopes to master the difficult skills that level requires.

"It's a lot of pressure," she said. "But I'm just trying to focus on Level 9 this year, so I can be a better 10."

In a week, Elise said, she would go to a meet in California, where she will look at the University of California in Berkeley, though she doesn't have her heart set on a specific college just yet. She said she would be happy to attend anywhere that is "a great academic college, and good for gymnastics."

According to Katy, two of Elise's former teammates have gone on to elite universities, which she said demonstrated the life skills that gymnastics teaches.

Katy said by juggling competitions and a part-time job's worth of training every week, plus homework and possibly another sport in spring, she hopes her daughter can find the kind of success she knows she can achieve, and that she has seen in Elise's former teammates.

"Super balanced people," she said.