© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

It took a while for Tiffani Williams to get used to her temporary reality last fall: There she was, day after day, in arena after arena, warming up for her day of gymnastics alongside Olympians like Simone Biles, Nastia Liukin, Danell Leyva and others.

“Practicing on tour, you have these Olympians next to you doing all of their stuff,” a wide-eyed Williams told USA Gymnastics recently. “It was hard to adjust back to our normal schedule after.”

That so-called abnormal schedule was during the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, when Williams and her acrobatic gymnastics partner Axel Osborne joined the best artistic, trampoline and rhythmic gymnasts in the U.S. for nearly three months on the road after the Rio Olympics.

It was an honor bestowed on Williams and Osborne as the two-time and reigning U.S. champions at the senior level in acrobatic mixed pairs, and one that taught them a lot about themselves and their gymnastics heading into the coming season.

That kicks off for them in full this coming weekend at the 2017 Vegas Acro Cup in Las Vegas, where they will be competing against a handful of other senior mixed pairs teams in what is an international field.

Williams and Osborne look to claim a third consecutive U.S. title this June in Milwaukee at the USA Gymnastics Championships, which would send them to the 2017 World Games in Poland in July, a spot they earned last year with a silver medal at the World Championships.

“We’re hoping to stay as the top team in the U.S.,” said Osborne, who is 21. “We have been training really hard and have three new routines that have been choreographed with new music. … We’re hoping that everything we’ve already done and plan to do for the upcoming season is going to carry us to the World Games this summer.”

On tour was where Tiffani and Axel felt like they found new motivation and new friends both at once. There was the daily rubbing of shoulders with Olympic-level athletes, and seeing the work ethic of some of the most well respected athletes in the sport.

Axel says there is still a group text message with the guys from tour, and they see one another as often as possible when they’re in each other’s hometowns.

“Tour was the first big performance event that we’ve ever done,” Osborne explained. “I think mostly what we learned was performing in front of a big crowd. Every night the energy that they give you is amazing. Even if you’re tired or something is going on with you, no matter what you want to go out there and put on a good show for the fans.”

Williams and Osborne have taken that motivation back to Realis Gymnastics Academy in Southern California since tour. With new routines to work on with their coach Youri Vorobiev, they’re looking to continue the style that they’ve built the past few years at the senior level, where they have been consistent, strong and creative with their gymnastics.

But does the expectation of repeating what they’ve done the last two years overwhelm them at all?

“It is a little bit of pressure, but mostly from ourselves,” Osborne explained. “We want to keep our reputation and our skill level as high as possible. I think that we can. We’re ready. We’re mature athletes now so I’m confident we can hit our routines every time in competition.”

Part of that maturity and consistency can be credited to tour, but also through their development as a team. Williams, lithe and elegant on the competition floor, is only 15, and Osborne said they learned more about one another and how to work together as a pair.

“Tour helped us understand each other better,” he said. “We’re comfortable not only doing skills together, but I always know how she’s feeling in practice so that we can work together really well. We really want to get to World Games.”

Their focus has solely been on gymnastics the last few months and that World Games goal as they head towards another season, though Williams has school to tend to when she is home.

“Life outside of the gym is pretty much just school,” she admitted. “Otherwise, we like to go to the beach or watch movies or go go-karting.”

That little bit of real-life escape helps both of them, the team saying they don’t see much of each other outside of the gym.

“We might do a team day as a gym, but sometimes, if we’re having a rough practice patch, it’s nice to get some space,” he said. “Most of the time we work together really well. We leave our frustrations in the gym.”

And tour motivated them: They loved the performance aspect, and have been saying “yes” to any opportunity that comes their way. The hope is that that builds up their strengths ahead of the competitive season.

“We’ve been doing shows more frequently for anything that we get called for,” said Osborne. “I think it really helps for the performance aspect of our routines so we aren’t shy in front of a big audience. It’s good practice.”

And having spent that time practicing alongside Olympians, they’ve learned what it takes to cultivate greatness.