By Michael Walker
BUZZ! BUZZ! The 5:45 a.m. wake-up call is a reminder of homework still unfinished.
It may seem a bit early, but like most 17-year-olds Jasmine Kerber crawls out of bed. Jazzy, as most people call her, still has homework to finish before heading to school. After the homework, getting dressed and her usual Greek yogurt with granola and fruit for breakfast, Kerber hops in her family's Toyota Prius with her 14-year-old sister, Gigi, and heads off to school. Sounds like a typical morning for any 17-year-old junior at Highland Park High School, located on the north side of Chicago. While "normal" might be the goal for this hard-working and inquisitive teenager, Kerber has led a life far more remarkable in rhythmic gymnastics.
"I tried a lot of different things from figure skating, to dance, piano and even soccer, which I was horrible at, but my own skills and preferences just brought me naturally towards rhythmic," said Kerber. "The other thing I continued the longest was ballet, so I think my style is less power and more balletic."
Kerber began gymnastics at age 4, coincidently after a trip to a local shopping mall where she saw her first rhythmic performance on what just happened to be National Gymnastics Day. Soon after, she was signed up for her own lessons and has been in love with the sport ever since. Her ballet training is still evident in her performances, as she seems to float above the mat with the lightest of touches.
From the beginning, Kerber has been training at North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastic Center under the tutelage of Natasha Klimouk, formerly of Belarus.
"I have known Jazzy since she was four-years-old," said Klimouk. "When she was 6- or 7-years-old, I began to understand that we could really go with this girl to a rich, world-class level because Jazzy has great physical ability."
One of the things Kerber has appreciated from the beginning is that while she has always competed to do her best, the pressure of results has not always been the top priority.
"I wasn't always finishing in first place when I was really little, and I remember feeling like it wasn't that important," recalled Kerber about her early years in the sport. "I guess I started to realize my potential when I was chosen for the youth elite squad when I was 10. My dad has said that if there was a sport made just for me, it would be rhythmic. I think it's just what I enjoy the most, and it best fits my skills."
Kerber has tremendous skills and athletic ability. Her mother, Karen Springen, wanted her to maintain a sense of normalcy and not have gymnastics be her entire life. For these reasons, Kerber attends public high school rather than homeschooling or taking classes online.
At Highland Park, Kerber's day begins with advanced placement (AP) calculus, her first period class that starts promptly at 8 a.m. Her schedule only gets more challenging from there because Kerber has a pair of honors classes and three AP courses this semester. Luckily, she has also has a pair of free periods, giving her the opportunity to complete some of her schoolwork before heading to her 3:45-7:45 p.m. evening practices.
While she plans to attend college, Kerber's current aspiration is to represent the United States at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She plans to take a year off between high school graduation and college to concentrate on her training full time.
"I know the United States historically is not a world powerhouse in rhythmic gymnastics, so my main goal is to qualify and represent the U.S. as well as I can," declared Kerber. "However, I don't want that to be the end all. I don't have a particular placement in mind, but I just want to continue to progress the best I can."
At three o'clock, the bell rings to dismiss Highland Park. Kerber has roughly 45 minutes before her coach expects her at the gym. The short drive gives Kerber a chance to listen to 101.9, The Mix, her favorite radio station, before her four-hour practice. Her six-days-a-week training schedule has produced some impressive results. Kerber has been a member of the U.S. National Team for five years running and has several first- and second-place finishes both in the United States and abroad. While she says she doesn't have any pre-competition routines, she does have her own good luck charm.
"I have a Beanie Baby bear that has come to every competition with me since I was 7," Kerber said. "It has an American flag on it, which is kind of funny because at that point I wasn't even thinking about competing internationally yet."
And it is competing internationally where Kerber truly takes in the entire experience, not only competing on such a grand stage but also taking in the cultural experiences as well.
"I'm really happy to have gotten the opportunity to travel internationally and to meet so many interesting people," Kerber said. "Being exposed to so many other cultures and talking to rhythmic gymnasts from other counties, you get to see how much we really do have in common and also how much we can learn from each other."
While she has been competing internationally since 2009, the 2013 World Championships in Kiev, Ukraine, brought national attention and an American first: both Jazzy and teammate Rebecca Sereda of Staten Island, N.Y., qualified for the all-around finals, marking the first time that two Americans qualified for the finals. Competing in the finals was an invaluable experience moving forward.
"It was really cool, not only for me to qualify for the finals, but also for both of us to qualify," she said. "I think it made it more meaningful since it was about the whole country."
As practice wraps up just before 8 p.m., Kerber makes the short 20-minute drive back home. A full day's work, and still there is dinner and more homework.
Most of her "free time" comes Saturday evenings and Sundays. Kerber becomes your typical teenage girl – hanging out with friends and family and enjoying activities such as shopping or baking. She is also an avid reader with Harry Potter and John Green's collection among her favorites. During the summertime, she may even make her way to the beach.
And while Kerber claims she doesn't do well staying up late, especially with such an early wakeup call, her head finally hits the pillow around 11:30 p.m.
The alarm is set again for another early morning.