NORMAN, Okla. -- Gymnastics teams from around the country have converged in Norman, Oklahoma for the men's NCAA championship. Of the 16 universities with a varsity program, 12 will be on hand to compete for a national title.
However, for most of the athletes chasing the gold medals at Oklahoma's Lloyd Noble Center, when their gymnastics career is over they return back to school and prepare themselves for their future careers. That is not the case for the gymnasts representing the three service academies.Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force gymnastic programs know that when they complete their final routines Saturday, their next step could lead them to something much different.
“When you first sign up for an academy, it's far off,” Air Force Academy senior Gared Chapman said. “You don't really think about it that much. I'm just going to school. I think the closer you get to graduating, the closer you get to pinning on your Lt. bars. You start to think I might be in Iraq, I might be in Afghanistan. That might be me on that wall that's by the flag pole at school. It's less being scared and more of embracing the bigger purpose that we've come to realize as a senior.”
That doesn't mean the gymnasts aren't going out and trying to bring home a title for their programs and themselves.
“From the gymnastics perspective, there is no difference,” Navy assistant coach Craig Holt said. “We expect the most out of our guys. We expect them to develop and grow during their four years and be the best so they can compete at this competition and be competitive here. That being said, when they leave us as seniors, as graduates, they are commissioned into Naval service in or situation. And we expect them to be fine officers. That training runs concurrent with their gymnastics training.”
Joshua Stevens is one of those seniors from Navy who is competing in his final gymnastics meet after being in the sport since the fifth grade in Houston, Texas. He will go to graduate school for a year before taking up position on a nuclear submarine.
“Just trying to go out there with the best performance I can,” Stevens said. “It's sort of bittersweet. Body is hurting, starting to feel it. But I wouldn't give this sport up if I could. Just trying to be proud of my last meet and come out with something I can remember.”
Connor Venrick is another senior taking part in his swan performance this week. The West Point Cadet is heading to the Uniformed Services Medical School in Washington, D.C. after he graduates so he can become a doctor.
Venrick says learning to deal with pressures of competing in gymnastics will make him a better doctor if he's sent to a combat area.
“Our sports phycologist really taught me how to hone in on gymnastics,” Venrick said. “I'm a pommel horse and rings specialist. Especially with pommel horse, you kind of have to zone everything out and just focus on what's going on. As an Army physician, I'm just going to have to pay attention to the patient and to what's going on around me. Gymnastics has really taught me that skill.”
Chapman had the same train of thought about his time at the Air Force Academy. He will head to Columbus Air Force base where he has a pilot slot waiting on him.
“I think it's a very similar feeling,” Chapman said. “You're part of a team here. You are part of a team when you join the service. It's very similar. Obviously not as much on the line here. I have a feeling its going to be exactly the same. I'm going to have brothers out there I would do anything for.”
But Chapman also recognizes that making a mistake on the high bar is not the same as making a mistake in the service.
“I think having to face curve balls and challenges, that's what going to help prepare us the best because that's what's going to happen in the real world in the military in theater,” Chapman said. “Next man up mentality. Here, someone goes down with an injury. Overseas, someone will go down for real. They will die and you're expected to take their spot, do your job.”