By Nick McCarvel
Having finished in fifth place at the USA Gymnastics Championships in the women’s double mini competition in 2016, Paige Howard had some soul-searching to do: It was either find a way back to her best and give things one more go, or walk away from a sport that she had spent more than 10 years training in.
“Right after Providence, I was very angry with myself,” Howard told USA Gymnastics of last year in a recent phone interview. “I felt like I had worked really hard and since I hadn’t gotten my way, it didn’t seem like it was worth it anymore. I went through a rough patch where I was like, ‘Is it worth it to keep going if I’m just going to keep working hard and nothing’s going to pay off?'”
The 19 year old from World Elite Gymnastics in Southern California, chose the latter, in large part thanks to the inspiring words of her coach, Austin White. Just over a year after that disappointment, she was not only a U.S. national champion, but – in late July – earned Team USA its first-ever gold medal in women’s double mini at the World Games in Wroclaw, Poland.
Howard – to no one’s surprise – was glad she stuck with it.
“It was pretty exciting because (the World Games) are only once every four years,” she explained, noting that – for double mini – it’s considered the Olympics of the sport. “I think the really cool part is that I earned a medal for my country and got to stand on the top of the podium to hear the national anthem played.”
The World Games is held every four years in the year after the Summer Olympics, and features 37 different sports with more than 4,500 athletes from around the globe.
In the year leading up, however, things weren’t easy for Howard between June of 2016 and the success she found in Wroclaw. Her period of doubt was beset by White, but also buoyed by a strong group of peers at World Elite, including 2016 Olympic trampoline gymnast Logan Dooley, Charlotte Drury and a host of other training mates.
The World Games gold, she says, was a result of having those people involved in her every day, and a choice to not let herself get down after the frustration of Providence.
“I tried to associate myself with people who were positive about themselves and positive towards me,” she said. “It’s so nice having so many people who are at the same level and who have such a passion for the sport where it’s like, even if you want to slack off, you can’t.”
After winning the U.S. title in Milwaukee this year, Howard found herself nervous and anxious in Wroclaw, expecting perfection and hoping for a podium spot.
Two days before competition was set to begin, however, she sprained her ankle badly, and instead of worrying about her skills and executing to the best of her ability, her mind turned to tending to her injury and just making sure she was OK.
Would she even be able to compete?
“Training was not going well at all. I saw all these other girls doing really well and hitting all their passes and I was getting kind of nervous,” she said. “But after the injury, I think me just focusing on that actually helped. I felt like I only had to prove myself for being there. It relaxed me.”
In the final, Howard secured a 35.100 on her first pass, then was cool as ice in nailing a Rudi-out to a layout full-full to claim the gold medal with a 71.400 total. She edged out Canada’s Tamara O’Brien in second (71.000) and Sweden’s Lina Sjoberg in third (70.000).
The World Games gold now hers, Howard turned to her phone after going through doping control and it was on a constant vibrate: Over 200 text messages and a heap of Facebook congratulatory posts were coming in. She had just made history – though she wasn’t aware quite so many people were following along.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!'” She said, laughing. “It was; it was crazy, honestly.”
The U.S. women had never won a double mini gold at World Games, while in men’s double mini Alex Renkert (Columbus, Ohio/Integrity Athletics) won silver while Austin Nacey (Braidwood, Ill./Twiststars) also captured the silver medal with an impressive showing in men’s tumbling.
Howard’s coach, White, was the one who had been so instrumental in her finding her best again, the World Elite mentor advising Paige to step away and take her time after the Providence disappointment, the same weekend in which she had watched friend and training mate Dooley realize his Olympic dream that weekend.
“(Austin) just gave me the space I needed, which was nice to step back and think about it for a little while,” Howard said. “I came back with a different mentality. I think I used the 2016 Nationals to remind myself that I definitely can win (laughs) if I try. I was in a good place, but I have to keep strong mentally and not focus on that anymore.”
For Howard, the dialogue had turned inward, and now had a much more positive bend – all thanks to White.
“For me, it’s not if I win or who I beat, it’s more of a did-I-do-my-best kind of thing,” she said. “You know if I lose and I did my best, then I’m happy with my performance and that means I need to work a little harder. But it has nothing to do with anyone else anymore.”
Howard was selected yesterday at a team camp in Texas for the World Championships team, set to head to Sofia, Bulgaria, November 9-12. It was a particularly sweet accomplishment, seeing as though she has made her way to the University of Notre Dame in the couple months since Poland and was finding training gyms on the fly, including making 90-minute drives to and from where Nacey trains in the Chicago area.
“That’s been a bit of a challenge, but I think that’s made it so I can’t slack off in a practice or have a bad practice,” she reasoned. “It’s all so limited and it’s such a commitment to get there that it’s made me work a lot harder during those work outs.”
The U.S. women won the bronze medal in double mini at the 2015 World Championships, and Howard thinks they could be in the running to do just as well – or better – in a few weeks in Sofia.
In Sofia, Howard will compete alongside Tristan Van Natta and Hally Piontek.
“There’s a very strong group of girls this year,” she said. “I have high hopes for us for sure. I think that if we all go out and hit good, clean preliminary passes and then hit a good clean team finals pass we can come out with hopefully a gold, and if not then a medal. For me, an individual medal is cool, but a team medal is something else; it’s really special because you get to share it with people who you’ve been competing with and who are your friends.”
Howard’s individual win was something special, too, however, and she said she was proud to put double mini in the spotlight temporarily, even if it doesn’t have the public’s attention like artistic gymnastics does in an Olympic year.
“I obviously know we don’t get as much as attention as women’s artistic gymnastics, which makes sense, but when you go out on the floor on a world stage, I don’t think you’re thinking about whether or not you’re going to get the attention from media or anything like that,” she said.
She added, breaking into a laugh: “This is what I love. This is what I’m… (pauses) I’d like to say I’m pretty decent at.”
Pretty decent at, yes. And also a World Games gold medalist in, as well.