By Alec Stephens
Confidence can be what separates a good performance from a great one. Trepidation in one’s movements can be the difference in the 0.6 points that separated Kiya Johnson from the rest of the juniors in the 2015 Nastia Liukin Cup on March 6.
After leading in the all-around after three events, Johnson cleanly dismounted the balance beam and a look of relief washed over her face as she exhaled and waved to the crowd. At that moment, she knew she had nailed her routine. She had done all she could do to secure the Junior Division victory and then waited for the remaining gymnasts to perform.
When she was 12, Johnson placed 15th at the 2014 Nastia Liukin Cup despite scoring a respectable 9.675 on vault. However, lackluster scores in uneven bars and floor notified Johnson of where she needed to improve for this year.
Johnson, now 13, exemplified confidence and professionalism when performing her balance beam routine. Her strides across the beam were strong and sure-footed. As Johnson came off a flip or turn, her legs appeared as small tree trunks rooted to the beam.
Very few knew that Johnson’s beam performance this year was a far cry from her performance last year. In 2014, Johnson faltered a couple times on the balance beam and she seemed unsure of her movements at times. Johnson obviously took her previous beam performance to heart as she executed a near flawless routine in 2015.
Kyesha Johnson, Kiya’s mother, said, “This was a beam [performance] we hadn’t seen before. On beam, it seemed like she was more determined this year and this week.”
Johnson said that she eats a pack of fruit snacks before competing to help calm her before a meet. This year’s pack of fruit snacks before her balance beam routine at the Nastia Liukin Cup was very effective because every movement was precise and purposeful.
“I was nervous because I knew I was in first,” Johnson said, “But my confidence level was higher so I didn’t let that get to me. The difference was a matter of comfort.”
Johnson’s improvement from competition a year ago was remarkable. She scored nearly six-tenths higher on uneven bars and almost a full point higher on her floor exercise routine. However, her most notable improvement was her 9.625 beam score, which was first among the junior competitors.
When the all-around results were announced, Johnson’s cumulative score of 38.275 put her in first place, an impressive victory when compared to 15th in 2014.
“I was shocked. We were not expecting Kiya to win,” Kyesha Johnson said. “We just wanted her to fare better than she did last year.”
When Kyesha Johnson watched her daughter take the lead after three events, realizing the possibility of victory soon got the better of her nerves.
“I didn’t watch beam,” Kyesha said, “but I heard the yell of the crowd and I knew she had a really good beam [performance]. Excitement doesn’t describe it well, but I was just really proud of Kiya.”
Where does a young gymnast go from here? After winning the Nastia Liukin Cup and receiving interest from the University of Utah, a 13-year-old girl can easily become overwhelmed.
“I still have to work hard,” Johnson said. “If I don’t, people could pass me. Everybody else in my gym is working hard so I have to as well.”
Johnson aspires to compete at the elite level and eventually for the University of California – Los Angeles. For right now, her goals are to be the best gymnast she can be and working towards a career in physical therapy.