© John Cheng

Chicago Daily Herald

Eighteen hardworking and talented athletes from all over the country comprise the U.S. women’s senior gymnastics team this year.

Two of them come from the same Naperville family — Bridgette Caquatto, 17, a senior at Naperville Central High School, and her sister Mackenzie, 19, a sophomore at the University of Florida.

Both sisters boast a long list of wins and accomplishments in gymnastics, claiming the uneven bars as their best routine.

Bridgette won three gold medals (individual all-around, uneven bars and team all-around) — more than anyone else on her team or any other in the women’s gymnastics portion of the Pan-American Games last month in Mexico. The Pan Am Games take place every four years and feature athletes from countries throughout the Americas.

Mackenzie won a silver medal with the U.S. team in 2010 at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, which feature athletes from all over the world and are held annually, except in Olympic years.

So how did they both manage to get so far in the sport? "We must have good genes," Bridgette concluded during a recent interview at her home.

A couple of days later, in a phone interview from Florida, Mackenzie’s answer was … exactly the same.

But the truth is a bit more complex, according to Kathy Kelly, vice president of programs for USA gymnastics.

"To reach the top at anything, I don’t care if you’re a concert pianist or a gymnast, first you need a little bit of God-given talent and a lot of personal drive that comes from the athlete, plus a little bit of luck that you can be with good coaches, and a lot of love from your parents, who are driving you around and taking you to meets," Kelly said. "It’s a big equation. It’s not any one thing."

And a measure of sisterly support goes a long way.

Kelly said she has always been impressed by how the Caquatto sisters treat each other. "Their gymnastics speak for themselves. They are very, very loving and supportive to each other. They are truly happy for the other’s success," she said.

The first time the sisters competed against one another was at the Visa Gymnastic Championships in August. Both made the U.S. national team, with Mackenzie taking 4th place all-around, and Bridgette close on her heels in 6th.

The sisters are quite different, both as athletes and as young women, said longtime coach Jiani Wu, who runs Legacy Elite Gymnastics with her husband, Yuejiu Li. Both are former Chinese Olympic gymnasts. Bridgette, who goes by "Bridgey," is the more reserved of the two, a disciplined athlete who values steady, consistent practice, Jiani explained. Mackenzie, whom everyone calls "Macko," is more outgoing, not always as intensely focused in training but able to step up her game in competition.

"Bridgey has a little bit more power; Macko is really coordinated. They are both really good on bars," said Jiani, whose daughter Anna Li, of Aurora, also is on the U.S. women’s senior gymnastics team. "They have a healthy way of pushing each other. I am very proud of them; they are great kids."

TheCaquatto sisters agree that no one — not their parents, not their coaches — pushed them to put in thousands of hours of practice at the gym over the years. "We do it because we love it," Bridgette said.

Both readily admit to making great sacrifices to get to the top. Training five to six hours a day and traveling to meets both nationally and internationally left little time to just hang out and be a teen, they said.

"I have given up a lot for gymnastics. You are always catching up with school and you have no time on your own, no time to relax. You are always constantly going," Bridgette said.

"You’re basically just focusing your whole life around the sport because you can’t really have distractions," Mackenzie said. "The only dances I went to was homecoming and prom of senior year."

Frustration has often been part of the equation, the sisters said.

Some days, they just want to throw in the towel, but they always are there to support each other, they said. "If you’re having a bad day, we always have each other’s back," Mackenzie said.

Despite their packed schedules, both sisters managed to keep good grades. Bridgette has a 3.98 GPA on a 4.0 scale; Mackenzie, a 2010 graduate of Naperville Central, maintains a 3.5 or so GPA while studying elementary education. Next year, Bridgette will join her sister at the University of Florida.

The sisters took their first gymnastic tumbles when they were just 2 years old, as each took a "mommy and me" gymnastics class with their mother, Lin, at Elite Sports Complex in Downers Grove.

"They both loved it from the start. They did really good, and they just kept going," said Lin Caquatto, who works as an administrative assistant for an executive search firm. Their father, Dave, is a regional sales manager for a printing company. Both parents always have been athletic.

An integral part of being a top athlete is mental strength, the sisters said.

"It just comes with age and how confident you are in yourself and your skills," Bridgette said.

"’I’ve done it time and time again in practice’ — that’s what I tell myself during competition. I keep bad thoughts out of my mind," Mackenzie said.

Both have suffered numerous injuries over the years — stress fractures, muscle tears, the occasional sprained ankle — but this has been a particularly tough one for Mackenzie.

She injured her ankle just before the SEC Gymnastics Championships, where she was primed for the challenge to win the national all-around title, said Rhonda Faehn, her coach at the University of Florida. "She still competed, even though she could hardly walk," Faehn said. "Mackenzie is a fighter."

Mackenzie then trained hard all summer to get back up to par, only to sprain both ankles in September during the selection camp for the world championship and the Pan-Am games.

Both Mackenzie and Bridgette would love to make the Olympic team that will compete in London next year. But they also are levelheaded about their prospects.

"I want to make it to the Olympic trials and do four of the best routines I have ever done, so I can leave and say I have no regrets," Bridgette said.

Mackenzie’s immediate goal is to get healthy so she can rejoin her teammates by midseason. "I want to win the NCAA championship with my team," she said. "Making it to the Olympics in 2012 has always been a goal of mine. With my ankles I don’t know how much of a possibility it is, but I am definitely still trying to make it."

The sisters say that getting to represent their country in international competitions is by far the biggest thrill of their lives.

"To compete for your country, after all that hard work, there is nothing like it," Bridgette said. "And when you hear the U.S. national anthem play, that is the best part."

"That moment at worlds, it was all of it for me," Mackenzie said. "All my hard work has paid off, all the hard days have paid off. And being with the team and the coaches, it all made sense why things had happened and how I got there."