CENTERVILLE -- It is a rare opportunity for a gymnast to set foot in the Bela Karolyi's Gymnastics Camp at the Olympic Training site near Houston for the USA Women's National Gymnastics team, but 9-year-old Seneka Erickson of Centerville has been to the camp five times in the last two years.
Erickson has been selected out of thousands of girls throughout the nation to participate in the USA's Gymnastics Talent Opportunity Program (TOPs), which identifies talented gymnasts between the ages of 8 and 10 and trains them for future opportunities with the national elite gymnastics teams, including the Olympic team.
Participants in the TOPs program are instructed that training for the 2020 Olympics starts now, and every day they are preparing for that goal. Erickson tries not to think about the Olympics though, knowing it would be a long shot.
"To become an elite gymnast is my goal and I just concentrate on what I need to do for that goal every day," said Erickson. "The skills are insanely hard, like standing tucks on the beam, and other crazy stuff, but I like working on new skills until I can get it right."
Her mom, Becky Erickson says, "If you could just watch her, you would see that she was born for this. You can't make a 9-year-old work out for hours at the gym, and yet that is where she loves to be," said Becky Erickson, whose daughter spends 35 hours, six days a week training at the Olympus School of Gymnastics in Sandy. In between training sessions, Seneka grinds on her school work through Davis School District's online program.
Becky Erickson knows seeing her daughter make it to the Olympics is extremely rare. "Seneka has a better chance of getting on an NFL Football team, so I don't even dare hope for it, so we try not to talk about it much. Instead, we just focus on the moments and cherish these opportunities she does have through this journey," Becky Erickson said.
Seneka's journey didn't start out with Olympic dreams. Instead, as a typical 4-year-old with plenty of energy to go around, Becky thought it wise to sign her up for a gymnastics class. Seneka was literally doing cartwheels around her peers, doing sets of 30 cartwheels just in warm-up.
Seneka quickly worked her way through the gymnastics levels and entered her first gymnastics competition at age 5, participating with girls twice her age. By the time she was 8, she was chosen as one of 10 8-year-olds on the TOPs A-team, which is when talk of her Olympic potential began.
The Erickson family was shocked. "I didn't even know anything about gymnastics," said Becky Erickson.
Anytime Seneka begins learning a new move, Becky has to look it up on YouTube.
Seneka now works with her four coaches at the gym and competes across the nation. One of her coaches, Mary Wright, says in the 45 years she has been coaching, it is extremely rare to come across an athlete with elite potential.
"Very rarely do you get all of the components of an elite athlete with the ability to fight for every single pinch, with the physical ability of power, strength, and flexibility, with the emotional stability, and attitude and effort they have to give 100 percent every time they go out onto the floor," said Wright. "That's why out of 300,000 gymnasts, there are only 20 girls on the elite national team."
For an athlete with elite potential, there are extreme sacrifices made on the part of their coaches, spending long hours in training; and for parents, who have to commit their time and finances to the effort; and from the athlete, who endures grueling training sessions.
Seneka spends several days a week getting up at 6 a.m. so she can be to the gym by 7:15 a.m. Once there, she and her coach begin the intense training, learning the five or six drills that go into each skill. Wright says an Olympian gymnast has to master their muscle memory for each drill, which takes a minimum of 1,000 repetitions. With 40 different skills in each competition, Wright says an elite gymnast has their work cut out for them.
"It's a very hard sport, and a lot of people decide they don't want to work that hard, and that's fine, but those who continue on get many rewards," said Wright.
Seneka's mom is constantly watching for any warning signs in her daughter to make sure she isn't pushed too hard. Becky confesses sometimes she doesn't want to get up early to take Seneka to the gym, especially in the summer, but then Seneca is always up and ready to go.
"I don't like missing the gym because I don't want to lose my skills," said Seneka, especially when she has her sights set on the Olympics.