TAMPA — While the other 7-year-olds were struggling, there she was just waving and smiling and excelling.
Early on, there was clearly something different about little Kailey Newman.
Her mother, Alison, recalls the moment Kailey showed she could become quite a gymnast.
"She amazed us at the amount of strength she had," her mother said. "During a class the kids had to try to climb a metal pole. While all the other kids were at the bottom, Kailey was already about 15 feet up, holding on with one hand and waving at me with the other."
And she has been separating herself from the pack ever since. Last month, Kailey, now an even-more athletic and effervescent 10, won a state championship.
That's impressive enough, but consider: This is her first year of actual competition. Though Kailey has been training at LaFleur's Gymnastics in Tampa for three years, it was only in the last year that she progressed to Level 4. That's the first stage where youth are considered advanced enough to go to competitions.
And though Kailey had been in several meets leading up to the AAU State Championships, held last month at the Manatee Convention Center, that didn't make it any less nerve-racking.
"I was nervous, especially because I had to start on the beams," Kailey said. That wouldn't be her first choice, because "that's the one where there's always a chance to fall off, and wobble, and they take off points if you wobble."
She might have wobbled a little, but she didn't fall off. And she even won that feared event with the highest score of the day.
It got better from there, as Kailey aced her favorite event, the bars.
Add in her consistent scores on the vault and floor exercise and just like that, she finished tied for first in the all-around.
Her success is well-earned. Three nights a week, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Kailey practices at LaFleur's. Consider that comes after waking up at 6:30 a.m., attending McKitrick Elementary — to the tune of straight A's as a fourth-grader — and doing homework before heading to the gym.
It can tend to lead to some crazy days, most of which wind up with Kailey eating her dinner in the car after gym class is over.
"Sacrifices," she sighs with a spunky sense of humor. "But don't worry, it's only food you can eat with your hands. Subway turkey sandwich, egg salad sandwiches, things like that."
Kailey really has had to put off some activities that most kids her age enjoy. Last summer, while friends were away at week-long programs put on by places like MOSI, Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens, she could not join due to her practice schedule.
The Newman household shows signs of sacrifice, apart from the frequent drives to and from practice by Alison and dad Peter. Literally, the house is set up like a gym in places.
"We have a runway that goes right through the hall and ends at the kitchen," Peter says. "She'll do roundoffs and end up stopping just short of the TV. She hasn't hit it, yet."
That's about the only target Kailey has stopped short of. Ultimately, Kailey wants to be a collegiate gymnast. And with a hearty stamp of approval from dad, she wants to don orange and blue while doing so.
"I take them to as many Gators events, in Gainesville, as I can," said Peter, a University of Florida alumnus. "Probably too early, but I even gave Kailey a tour of the campus and showed her some of my old classrooms last fall."
Kailey has a younger sister, Amelia, who is also into gymnastics. Eight-year-old brother Chase is a hard-nosed Little League baseball player.
The physical strength, determination and discipline it takes to succeed in gymnastics were molded by a year that Kailey swam competitively, at age 6. After cheerleading for the Lutz Chiefs that one year, it was back to gymmnastics full-time (she began dabbling at age 5).
At first, "I liked it because of the flips," but gymnastics has grown into a passion. "Some days I'm tired, but I always look forward to it," she says.
Her first couple of meets might have dampened that enthusiasm. The size of the Lakeland Center, where Kailey performed in just her second big event, might have intimidated her a little and her scores were low.
But that only became fuel. And a sit-down with her dad helped.
"We had a talk to explain her goals: Just focus on individual routines and not the whole meet, try to just improve her own scores and not worry about placement. That seemed to resonate with her," her father said.
In the next meet, in Port Charlotte, Kailey landed a for-the-ages vault that, to this day, provided the best score she's ever achieved (9.60). Her total scores held consistently in the next two stops and then it was time for the State Championships, the only one of the year held for Level 4.
While her scores in the four different exercises had previously varied by several fractions, in Manatee County the range stayed tight (9.10 to 9.35), which was enough to win her the state title.
"Many competitors do good in one or two apparatuses, but their weaker skills bring them down," her father said. "Kailey just works so hard at all the skills; her consistency paid off."
And she doesn't like to lose.
"Yeah I'm a little competitive," she says, shyly.
That is, until her dad gives her a look.
"Okay, I'm really competitive."
Darek Sharp can be reached at email@example.com.