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High school gymnastics vaulting to another level with gymnasts at highest level joining programs

A Level 10 gymnast who has verbally committed to George Washington University, North Andover junior Kasey Burke savors the camaraderie of competing for her high school team.
A Level 10 gymnast who has verbally committed to George Washington University, North Andover junior Kasey Burke savors the camaraderie of competing for her high school team.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

When Kasey Burke approaches the vault during a meet, her thought process depends on where exactly she is.

When the North Andover junior is competing on the club level, there is a huge weight on her shoulders. “When I approach an event, I feel like there is much more pressure because I am on my own.”

When she is competing as a member of the Scarlet Knights gymnastics team, that weight is lifted. “There are teammates screaming for you, and you know that there are others around you. It is a fun atmosphere.”

Burke is among a growing number of gymnasts at the highest level of USA Gymnastics’ competitive offerings who are choosing to compete in Massachusetts high school gymnastics.

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In the last two decades, high school gymnastics had become off-limits for many “Level 10s,” as gymnasts one level below national and international elite competition are often called. It refers to the top level of the USA Gymnastics Developmental Program, known as Junior Olympics, or JO, until a copyright issue scuttled the name last summer. Level 10 gymnasts often focused only on club competitions in pursuit of a roster spot on a Division 1 college team and as a steppingstone to elite gymnastics.

If a Level 10 asked their club coach if they could compete for their high school, the answer often was no, despite its popularity in 1970s and ’80s. Coaches had their reasons. High school competition in Eastern and Central Massachusetts conflicts with the height of club season, raising concerns of burnout and injury. MIAA regulations also place restrictions on gymnasts’ competitive activity, not allowing gymnasts to compete for both their high school team and club on the same day.

Additionally, coaches were concerned about the condition of the equipment used for high school meets. Vaults and beams would be rolled out onto a gymnasium floor for meets or practices, then shoved back into a closet afterward, next to volleyball nets and basketball carts.

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Even before the pandemic, club gymnastics’ hold on its Level 10s was beginning to slip. For better or worse, school athletic directors no longer wanted to handle gymnastics equipment. As gymnastics disappeared from gym class curriculums, high school teams were to practice and compete out of local clubs. As the number of teachers who had the skill to coach the sport declined, more club coaches took high school coaching positions.

MIAA competition now is chock full of Level 10 gymnasts, with two-time state champion Masconomet the perfect example. Its leading gymnast, Gracy Mowers, is a successful Level 10 gymnast headed to the University of New Hampshire’s D1 program. Masconomet’s coach, Alicia Gomes, knows the path well — she competed for Beverly from 1997-2001 and was a Level 10 before joining the Wildcats. Masco’s lineups also include other Level 10s and Level 9s performing the same balancing act.

“It gives their peers a chance to see what they actually do when they have been practicing five-plus hours a day,” said Gomes. “I know for me, my high school friends had never seen me compete until high school gymnastics. It gave them more of an understanding of why I was training so much and an appreciation for what I did.”

Kasey Burke on bars during a practice session in North Andover.
Kasey Burke on bars during a practice session in North Andover.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Burke, who verbally committed to George Washington, said the support from her school has been a large reason to balance the two competitive levels. She also has found that high school meets better prepare her for club competition. “High school gymnastics has made such a difference with my consistency,” she said. “It helps my nerves calm down, and the frequency of high school meets helps me manage the adrenaline rush of competition.”

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COVID-19 actually aided high school gymnastics — as a live competitive outlet. With many club meets canceled, and several clubs struggling to stay open, Level 10s hoping to keep their skills sharp and their names in front of recruiters scrambled to find live competitive opportunities, leading some to make the leap to high school teams.

Paula Lupien’s Franklin squad found itself in that position, adding Level 10 junior Emma White. The Panthers already carried a strong lineup that had made South Sectionals last season, and White set them over the top.

Lupien approached Franklin five years ago about restarting gymnastics to provide alternative outlets for the town’s burned-out competitive gymnasts. She now steers ready-to-quit gymnasts toward both high school gymnastics and USA Gymnastics’ Xcel competitive system, which paces skill acquisition slower and limits practice time, allowing gymnasts to compete in multiple sports and have a life outside of the gym.

“Gymnastics is a sport that likes to hang on to its past culture,” said Lupien. “There is a thirst and a hunger out there for a different path.”

Despite the success stories, there are still some club holdouts. Lupien hopes that those gyms consider what’s best for the sport and its young people.

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“One of my Level 10s just told me, ‘You are so ingrained your whole life in JO that you are the only gymnast that matters. In high school, it’s the whole team that matters,’ ” said Lupien. “It teaches them things that JO could never teach them.”