© Ricardo Bufolin

By Blythe Lawrence

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – A world away from the springless two-inch mats she tumbles on with the Baylor University Acro and Tumbling team, Hope Bravo is still getting used to being at the World Trampoline and Tumbling Championships.

There’s the giant, three-story painted backdrop of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace that she tumbles toward on every pass. And the fact that she’s still warming up while her teammates are competing, hearing their names called but not being able to watch due the “big ol’ wall” that separates warmup hall and competition arena.

Most of all, at her second World Championships, the 20-year-old can’t quite get her head around the fact that she’s the USA’s number one tumbler here after the first day of prelims, and the only American woman to advance to tumbling finals.

“I’m kind of blown away. It hasn’t hit me yet, but it’s pretty exciting,” Bravo said breathlessly after finishing the preliminary round in ninth place. The final U.S. tumbler to perform Wednesday, Bravo wowed with a clean double layout through to double pike first pass and followed up with a full twist to floated full-twisting double layout second line that drew gasps of admiration from the crowd.

The performance landed her in ninth place, and while the best eight qualify for finals, only the top two per country advance. Since Great Britain had three in the top eight, their third gymnast was automatically eliminated, leaving Bravo holding the last ticket into the final.

“It’s huge for me,” said Bravo, who drives the two hours between Waco and Dallas several times a week to train with Jared Olsen at Eagle Gymnastics Academy. The rest of the time, she’s one of the “fliers” on the Baylor Acro team, a 45-member group whose displays contain components of cheerleading routines, but injected with a hefty dose of hard-core acrobatic gymnastics and tumbling.

“Personally I’m still learning how to compete myself, staying calm and knowing what I need for warmup and to compete out there, and whatever I did today worked,” Bravo added. “There’s still room for improvement, but I’m very happy.”

Bravo’s hoorah was one of the biggest highlights of the USA’s first day of competition at Worlds, where four athletes finished poised to shine again in finals. In women’s trampoline, 2016 Olympian Nicole Ahsinger made the 24-person cutoff for the women’s trampoline semifinal by qualifying 23rd. In men’s trampoline, Cody Gesuelli was the best American performer in 35th, followed by Aliaksei Shostak in 41st.

“I hit 20 skills, so I’m happy about that,” Ahsinger said, adding with her next breath that everything could have been a little better. “My last five skills I started rushing a lot. I’m just going to be trying to jump higher and stay more in the middle [of the trampoline], and hopefully I’ll be able to do that.”

Men’s double mini-trampolinists Ruben Padilla and 2017 World team silver medalist Matthew Hawkins qualified sixth and seventh, respectively, to the double-mini medal rounds, a surprise for one and a pleasure for the other.

“I wasn’t really expecting to make the finals,” said Padilla, who at 17 is competing at his first senior Worlds with some big upgrades. “I’m doing new passes that I’ve done like twice before we left. I just kind of came here and hoped for the best.”

Qualifying for the double-mini final was “really all I was shooting for this week,” said Hawkins, who earned a World silver with the men’s double-mini team last year in Sofia. “From here on, it’s just fun.”

Same goes for Bravo, who sees plenty of room for improvement in the final.

“I’m just going to take it all in and have fun and focus on the things that I can fix to do my passes to the best of my abilities, and just honestly take everything in, because I haven’t gotten to this point before and it’s exciting,” she said.