AP NEWS

Byron gymnast ready to face friendly foes

February 15, 2019
Claire Graham, a sophomore at Byron High School and the Bears’ highest-scoring gymnast, hopes to earn her first trip to the state gymnastics meet when she competes in the Section 1A meet Saturday in Red Wing.

At this point in the high school gymnastics season, almost every athlete is dealing with some kind of injury — twisted ankles, shin splints, tendinitis — but Byron sophomore Claire Graham found a new way to hurt herself.

“I was lifting weights in the morning, and I dropped a plate on my big toe when I was taking it off of the rack,” she said with a wry smile last week before a practice. “It’s pretty bad. It’s not broken, but it’s really bruised.”

That’s the bad news, as this injury has kept her from practicing her vault and floor exercise. The good news is that Graham, the top-scoring gymnast on an up-and-coming Byron squad, expects to be ready to roll Saturday for the Section 1A meet in Red Wing — and even if she isn’t 100 percent, Byron coach Breanna Yennie-Litch said Graham won’t hold back.

“Claire’s one of those athletes that, on the day of competition, she’ll go all-out even if she’s hurting,” Yennie-Litch said.

Graham won’t have the option of playing it safe on Saturday if she wants to achieve her dream of earning her first berth in the state tournament. While Byron is having a strong season and has won a bunch of meets, the Bears will run into perennial powerhouse Pine Island/Zumbrota-Mazeppa, which is ranked No. 10 in Class A with an average team score of 142.650.

The Panthers won the Section 1A meet last year and will be prohibitive favorites to repeat, with state-tested sophomores Jaci Newman and Sawyer Gorman leading the way.

FRIENDLY COMPETITION

Graham, however, has no ill will toward the girls who stand between her and the state meet. Until a couple years ago, she trained with them at Kaats Gymnastics in Pine Island.

“I’m really good friends with all of the Pine Island girls,” she said. “Honestly, I’m really comfortable around them, because I’ve been competing with them since I was 8. And actually, I don’t think of them as competition. They’re people who will cheer me on and I’ll cheer them on, and we can learn from each other and get better together.”

While Graham would likely need a near-perfect day to qualify for state in the all-around, Yennie-Litch said there are several individual events where she’ll have a good shot — especially now that each section sends the top six girls in each event to state.

“If Claire can stick her beam routine, that’s a definite possibility,” Yennie-Litch said. “That event is always wide open for those who can stay on the beam. On our squad I’d say Olivia Yennie and Leah Yokiel also have a chance to qualify for state on beam.”

Yennie-Litch said Graham also could make some noise on the bars and the vault, two events in which she has increased her level of difficulty in recent weeks. Graham herself, however, thinks floor exercise is her best route to the state meet.

“I really enjoy the performance aspect of floor, and I can focus on that, rather than thinking so much about the actual gymnastics,” she said. “It all just kind of falls into place on floor, and in a high-pressure situation, I do my best in that event.”

Her high score on floor this year is 9.3.

Yennie-Litch says the Byron squad will go into Saturday’s meet with realistic expectations, knowing full well that a team title is beyond their reach — for now.

“Our girls are already setting their sights on next year, saying ‘We’re not done yet,’” she said. “Most of our team is sophomores, and they want to come back with the capability of going to state as a team before they graduate.

“But for now, we’ll go into a meet like Saturday and say, ‘Can I outdo Pine Island on vault this time? Can I outdo them on beam? Can I at least get close?’ Pine Island has such a strong team, and their level of difficulty is outstanding, they’re always working on bigger and better tricks.

“So for us, we just have to focus on having our best night, and we always go in with a team goal of getting a new high team score.”

As for Graham, a state berth in any event would be a great conclusion to a strong season.

“I would be ecstatic,” she said. “This is something I’ve wanted for a very long time, and having my hard work pay off would mean a lot.”