This isn’t the ending that Kaylee Sugimoto envisioned for her club gymnastics career.
The Camas High School senior had hoped to earn high marks for her performance at the 2020 Women’s Junior Olympic National Championships in front of enthusiastic family members and friends at the Tacoma Dome. Instead, she’s dealing with disappointment after the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancellation of the event and prematurely ended her final club campaign.
“There are a lot of more important things to focus on, and I understand that,” said Sugimoto, who competed at the national meet in 2018 (Cincinnati, Ohio) and 2019 (Indianapolis, Indiana). “But I just felt like I got ripped off. That’s the best way to put it. It didn’t sink in until a week later. I just wanted to finish (my club career) strong.”
When Kaylee heard that the Oregon Optional State Championships, which were scheduled for Friday-Saturday, March 20-21, in Eugene, Oregon, had been cancelled, she knew that it was a virtual certainty that the USA Gymnastics Region 2 meet, scheduled for Friday-Sunday, April 17-19 in Helena, Montana, and the national meet, scheduled for Friday-Sunday, May 15-17, would also be scrapped.
“We sat down at the dinner table one night and realized that all her meets were cancelled, the gym was closed and her next competition would be at college,” said Glen Sugimoto, Kaylee’s father. “It was a unique moment, but a good learning lesson. Sometimes the best things in life start and end without notice. Gymnasts who survive are mentally tough. It has to be that way because they are the ones who somehow get the strength, courage and stamina to keep moving forward. We know this is a universal lesson that is learned, and we thank gymnastics for being part of her life.”
Kaylee was primed for a stellar showing at the Tacoma meet, according to Rob Petit, Sugimoto’s coach at Portland’s Multnomah Athletic Club (MAC), where she trained for the past four years.
“This probably would’ve been her best (performance) at nationals,” Petit said. “She went four-for-four — meaning she got through all four of her events without a mistake or a fall — in her first two years at nationals, and I fully would’ve expected her to do the same this year. Last year we added new skills to her routines, and this year, with all of those skills in place for a second year, she would’ve gone in steady and confident. But I’m proud of her. She’s handled this transition well. She’s an easy-going, even-keeled kid. She goes with the flow and rolls with the punches and all of those cliches.”
Before the outbreak, Kaylee, a Camas High School senior, left her house by 7:30 a.m. for school, then left early to drive across the Columbia River and train at the MAC for four or four-and-a-half hours, then drive back across the river and get home at about 8 or 8:30 p.m. Then she would start on her homework.
Now she has a different routine, to say the least.
“It’s strange to have open days with nothing going on, but gymnastics has taught me to stay organized, so I’m figuring out a new normal,” Kaylee said. “I didn’t overload myself with classes this year, so the (distance learning) hasn’t been too bad. I’ve created a schedule for myself that includes running and conditioning. I’m doing my homework. And I’m playing my electric bass a lot more.”
Gymnast prepares for college competition
Even though she’s not going to be competing anytime soon, Kaylee’s training serves a major purpose – she’s preparing to join Illinois State University’s (ISU) gymnastics team this fall. Earlier this year she signed a letter of intent to continue her academic and athletic career at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division-I university, located in Normal, Illinois.
Encouraged by her parents, Kaylee embraced the idea of attending college far from home. Taking advantage of the fact that her mother, Marnie, works for Alaska Airlines, she flew all across the United States to visit colleges, tour their gymnastics facilities and interact with their coaches and student-athletes.
Ironically, ISU just happened to be the last school Kaylee visited. She called the recruiting process “stressful, a long and hard journey for me and my family.” But she’s excited about the fact that the journey had a happy ending.
“I chose (ISU) definitely because of the people – the coaches and (gymnasts),” said Kaylee, who has a 4.0 grade-point average at Camas and plans to study communications and English at ISU. “Everyone had the same values and morals. There was a really good ‘feel’ to the campus – not too big and not too small.
“I had sent a video to the coaching staff, and they kept in touch, and things seem to be going well, and when I visited, I asked the head coach, ‘What do I need to do to earn a spot on the team?’ He said, ‘You’re on the team. I’m offering you a spot now.’ I shut up at that point because I didn’t want to mess it up.”
Petit said Kaylee “will definitely get a lot better” at ISU.
“She’ll be surrounded by kids who are better than her, and that will be helpful,” he said. “She’ll thrive in that scenario. She’ll have teammates who will be able to help her and give her advice and guidance, and she’s looking forward to that.”
“Kaylee is a good all-around gymnast that will make an immediate impact for us on bars,” Redbirds gymnastics coach Bob Conkling said in a news release issued by ISU. “She is a hard-working gymnast that has the capability of helping us on each event.”
Kaylee discovers passion, finds niche
Similar to the way it ended, Kaylee’s club gymnastics career “started really fast,” according to Glen.
Kaylee said that when she was a young girl, she “tried just about every sport except for gymnastics.” But when she was 7, her mother enrolled her in a tumbling class at Vancouver Elite Gymnastics Academy (VEGA) in Camas, and she “fell in love right away.”
“I loved learning new skills, flipping on the floor and jumping on the trampoline,” Kaylee said. “One of the (VEGA) coaches took me aside and said, ‘You should join the team.’ I said, ‘OK.’
“My wife and I didn’t really want her to do gymnastics,” Glen added. “She was busy ice skating and doing other ‘kid’ stuff. But before we knew it, we were traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest. We decided to continue as long as her grades at school were good. It’s a deal that made it very easy for us since she loves gymnastics so much.”
She trained at VEGA for several years moving on to Naydenov Gymnastics in Vancouver, then the MAC.
“The reason she came to us was that she was not getting much attention (at her previous club),” Petit said. “They didn’t think she would set the world on fire, so they concentrated on other gymnasts. After she came here, her technique got better because she got coached.”
Kaylee took first place in the all-around and bars events at the 2019 Oregon Optional State Meet and earned fifth place in the all-around at the 2019 Region 2 championships.
“I think a lot of my major growth happened when I was at the MAC, turning from a teenager into an adult,” Kaylee said. “My teammates and coaches really helped me with not only gymnastics, but a lot of life lessons, too. The biggest (lesson) I learned was to just stay in the present, don’t ‘future-trip’ or live in the past, and to just have fun and not take everything too hard.”
Kaylee is an all-around gymnast, meaning she competes in all of the four major events — uneven bars, floor routine, balance beam and vault. She excels in each, but is especially skilled on the beam, according to Petit.
“It’s her strongest event,” he said. “It’s what she was made for. She practically never falls off. She has short legs, which help to keep her center of gravity lower, and mental toughness. She’s determined to stay on that beam.”
Gymnast perseveres through injuries, other obstacles
Kaylee has used that mental toughness to overcome several obstacles during her career.
When she was young, her main goal was to join the USA Gymnastics elite program, which prepares gymnasts who aspire to qualify for the United States’ national team and compete in international events such as the Olympic Games. A gymnast who ascends to level 11 is considered to be pre-elite; Kaylee currently has a level-10 designation.
But after suffering a series of injuries during her middle-school years, she was forced to scuttle those plans and focus on earning a college scholarship.
“I tore two muscles. I dislocated my elbow. I broke both of my feet. I broke a toe. I fractured my wrist — weird things like that, and they all happened in the span of three years. It was crazy,” Kaylee said. “I got close to quitting around that time. By the time I (sustained my) seventh broken bone, I knew I would be too far behind and wouldn’t be going elite. That was a tough thing to accept for a 13-year-old. This sport forces you to grow up fast. But now that I’m going down this path, I’m grateful for everything that happened.”
“There were times when her injuries would come one after another,” Glen said. “We kept her boots and slings because she was breaking, cutting or spraining something so consistently.”
Kaylee was also presented with a series of mental challenges as well.
“I remember one day when I was 15 or 16, I was at the gym, and I realized I wasn’t a little girl anymore,” she said. “I had grown, and I had lost some of my skills. I knew I could physically do them, but it was all a mental game. I’m proud of how I learned to push those things aside and focus on the belief that I could still do what wanted to do.”
“There have definitely been some hard days, especially when I entered high school and realized all of the things that I’d be missing,” she continued. “That put (my gymnastics future) into question a little bit, but I love the sport, and I kept going, and I’m so happy that I did. Every time I have a hard day, I remind myself that the next day will be better. If I quit every time I had a hard day, I would’ve quit a long time ago.”
It’s not uncommon for young athletes to reach a “burnout” stage, which can include a desire to abandon their sport to discover what it feels like to be a “normal” student or pursue other interests, as they approach adulthood.
But Kaylee has managed to avoid those feelings, mostly because of the support that she’s received from her parents and the fact that the passion she felt during her first visit to VEGA is still a part of her.
“At this point, (I’m motivated) by the love that I have for the sport,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like that’s the only thing that’s keeping me in it. Deep down inside, I really do love flipping on a beam, or learning a new skill on the bars, or even falling, and doing something again and again until I get it right. It’s just my personality. I love challenging myself to do new things. I love the competitions. I love going out there and showing off. It’s just fun.”