By Blythe Lawrence
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – As he has every year for the past eight years, Alex Renkert prepared tenaciously for the World Trampoline and Tumbling Championships , which begin tomorrow in Russia’s second largest city.
The tumbling and double mini-trampoline specialist looks forward to the competition, as well as the familial atmosphere fostered by the U.S. trampoline and tumbling community.
“Every single year it surprises me how close the groups really merge together and how long these relationships last,” said Renkert, who still keeps in touch with gymnasts who competed with him at his first Worlds in 2010, when he was just 17.
At the final team dinner before the Worlds begin Wednesday, Renkert, now 25, led the U.S. delegation — athletes, coaches, officials and parents — in a game of “Three things you don’t know about me.” Amidst plenty of hooting and giggling, the group discovered who is bilingual, who owns a pig, and who has, in their words, an “irrational fear of sharks.”
This year there is a special reason to band together. The news that the U.S. Olympic Committee had begun a process that could lead to the de-recognition of USA Gymnastics as the sport’s national governing body hit on the eve of the biggest trampoline and tumbling event of the year. And while it did not come as a surprise to everyone, the timing of the announcement has perplexed some of the U.S. gymnasts preparing to compete in St. Petersburg.
“I knew something like this was most likely going to happen. I was extremely surprised to see it fall upon us at this time,” Renkert said. “It’s a situation that no one wants to experience when you’re trying to concentrate on the gymnastics, so that was a challenge that’s come forth to us. It’s mostly a challenge because we’re all confused. We’re not really that worried — we know we’re going to have something for us there, it’s just the confusion, wondering what the state of it will be.”
In a letter to the U.S. gymnastics community, the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors said that it is “evaluating the best path forward for our athletes, professional members, the organization and staff.
“We want you to know, we will continue to serve the thousands of young athletes, coaches, club owners, judges and administrators who make up our organization,” the letter continues. “Our commitment will always be to ensure the health and safety of our members while they pursue their love of the sport. We know this continues to be a difficult time for our organization, and we are so appreciative of all that you do to support our gymnastics community.”
The 24 U.S. team includes 2016 Olympian Nicole Ahsinger and World medalists Matthew Hawkins (double mini-trampoline silver), Paige Howard (double-mini bronze), Brandon Krzynefski (tumbling bronze), Kristle Lowell (double-mini gold), Renkert (double-mini silver), CJ Rhoades (double-mini silver), and Tristan Van Natta (double-mini gold). Nine World titles are up for grabs in St. Petersburg. In addition to the traditional categories — men’s and women’s individual trampoline, synchronized trampoline, tumbling, and double mini — an all-around team event combining the disciplines and the sexes will be held for the first time. Competition runs through Saturday.
The mostly young team stuck together on its final day of training at the St. Petersburg Sports and Concert Complex. After a morning meeting to address questions about decertification and how it might affect them, the athletes were able to concentrate on the task at hand.
“We are here for the USA, regardless of what’s happening at home,” said Eliza Floisand, the reigning U.S. champion in women’s tumbling. “We are separately competing away from that, just doing what’s best for Team USA. I think this is something that we more have to put on the back burner and disregard until we can get home and deal with it, not let it affect our competition mindset.”
In a statement Tuesday night, Nuno Merino, the senior national coach of the U.S. Trampoline Team who also serves as trampoline athlete representative for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), encouraged the gymnasts to focus on what they came to St. Petersburg to do: gymnastics.
“When you go out onto the field of play with the U.S. flag on your chest, forget about everything except what you have trained so hard for,” he said. “These are hard times for our sport, but nothing in life is truly worth it without affliction, so this week go out there and take what’s yours. Good luck for the competition, and know the entire nation supports you.”