BROOKSVILLE — For the first time since moving into a new gym in Hernando County, Top Contenders took a contingent of true contenders to an international competition, and the group did not disappoint.
The recent 22nd annual Gasparilla Classic at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg featured more than 2,000 gymnasts from all over the world, including Portugal, Venezuela, Canada and Finland. It was a perfect opportunity for the local athletes to prove themselves against some of the best.
The five select gymnasts chosen to make the trip all impressed. Along with her staff, Beth Strazzullo, the owner and lead coach at Top Contenders, worked closely with all of them.
"The Gasparilla has always been a challenge for us because it's a really big competition," Strazzullo said. "It says more than how good they are (around here), but how good they are compared to the rest of the country and the world."
Katherine Jones, 10, came home as the most decorated Top Contenders gymnast. A Level 7 competitor from Hudson, Katherine finished in third place all-around with a score of 36.475. She was one of only four gymnasts in the competition to earn a trophy for efforts.
The strength of Katherine's performance was on the beam, where she took first overall (9.450). She also took second in the vault (9.300), fourth in the floor and fifth in the bars. She found herself only slightly behind eventual champion Nkiru Garnere (36.675) of Philadelphia in the final standings.
Just on the outside of the top four was another Level 7 Top Contenders gymnast, Molly Hanley of Spring Hill. The 10-year-old finished fifth all-around (35.375) out of the 11 qualifying competitors. Her best event was a silver medal earned in the floor exercise (9.000). She also medaled in the vault (9.275) with a bronze.
"You haven't seen Molly's potential yet," Strazzullo said. "Neither (Molly nor Katherine has) scratched the surface of what they're capable of."
Katherine and Molly are both hoping to show that potential at the upcoming USA Gymnastics Level 7 Florida State Championships in Daytona Beach on March 27 and 28. If the two place high enough there, they can qualify for the Level 7 Regional Championships in Tupelo, Miss., in April.
Sydney Jessie, 8, is a Level 4 gymnast out of Spring Hill with Top Contenders. She has been dominating for much of the year, showing signs of brilliance for several weeks. At a meet in Daytona earlier in the month, Sydney swept all of her events before walking away with the all-around gold. To repeat that performance at Gasparilla, however, would be another feat entirely.
Sydney strolled out of the Trop with three individual event gold medals in vault (9.250), bars (9.400) and floor (9.250), stumbling only with a fifth-place finish in the beam. Still, she won the all-around gold (36.250), surpassing a highly decorated group of four girls from Plain City, Ohio.
Raleigh Forbell, 10, of Spring Hill, also achieved a measure of success in St. Petersburg. Her story is an interesting one as well.
Raleigh stopped training when Top Contenders' old gym closed in Pasco County about a year and a half ago. At the time, she was a Level 4 gymnast. Upon coming back, with little or no training in the meantime, she has skipped two levels and is now competing as a Prep Optional gymnast.
At the Gasparilla Classic, Raleigh finished in sixth place all-around. However, she won the beam event (9.550), with more than one-tenth of a point difference than the silver medalist.
Then there was 4-year-old Ashlyn Novak. The Level 2 competitor from Tampa amazed from the start of her trip to the international event. She won gold in the floor exercise (9.225) and was the lone Level 2 participant not from Brandy Johnson's Gymnastics in Clermont to win an event. Ashlyn finished seventh all-around (36.375), and all of the top six in front of her were from Clermont.
"She has no fear and no nerves," Strazzullo said. "And it's not her age. Some of my 4- and 5-year-olds are so nervous, but not her. She is phenomenal."
Strazzullo hopes the success in St. Petersburg will help Top Contenders as its gymnasts enter future competitions.
"This is a special group of girls I have with me right now," she said. "Every one of the girls I have now will easily be Level 10, the highest you can achieve in the Junior Olympics. They can all get full college scholarships for gymnastics."