---- — DETROIT — Longtime friends and competitors Briana Stewart and Nicole Souder stood atop the United States Tumbling Association Podium in the first and second spots on July 28, moments after a tough two-person duel in the rod floor event at the AAU Junior Olympic Games.
Stewart, a 2012 Effingham graduate, had just taken her fourth first-place finish in a distinguished career while Souder, an Olney product, finished in second. Raised a tad higher than her challenger, Stewart had been in this position before, graciously accepting a gold medal as it was draped around neck.
Yet this most recent triumph was perhaps her sweetest, because when she finally stepped down from the podium, she knew she wouldn't be making the familiar trip back to the top."This is my retiring year," Stewart said. "It was really rewarding for me in my last Junior Olympics. Kind of bittersweet, but I'm really proud of myself for how I finished."
Stewart recorded a higher score than Souder in each of their four passes, closing with a mark of 83.10. Souder finished more than eight tallies back at an even 75.
"I did beat my personal best," Stewart said. "Although it was just me and Nicole, I did throw my best skills. Rather than just winning, I really did a great job with my skills."
Her fourth gold medal, this one coming in the advanced 17-and-older division, marked the culmination of 15 years of hard work in the sport. Stewart began as a 3-year-old splitting time between tumbling and gymnastics, but realized as an early teen that her future lay with the former.
"I stopped [gymnastics] completely when I was 13," Stewart said. "Tumbling was really for me, I think just the simplicity behind it. Gymnastics is so complicated, it's four events, a lot to put on my plate. When I focused on one event [rod floor], the one I was really good at, I could improve so much more and just grow. I realized how much I loved it."
On an "extra bouncy floor," as Stewart described it, she makes one pass using a five-skill set and the following using an eight-skill set, where all skills are done in consecutive fashion, connecting to form a dizzying array of intense acrobatics. To help acclimate her mind, and stomach, to the constant flips and spins, Stewart has had the benefit of using the Effingham Academy of Gymnastics as her training facility. Her father Mark is the coach, which created an interesting dynamic when the two first traveled the national circuit, though the relationship has been nothing but smooth in recent times.
"At first it was kind of a challenge when my parents bought the gym," Stewart said. "There was way more pressure than there was on the other kids, saying, 'You're dad is the coach, you better be the best.'
"Once we found that balance of father-daughter, coach-athlete, it was better. When we were in the gym, we turned it on. When we were at home, we turned it off. He made me grow as an athlete."
Stewart's list of accolades is a long one. She won the AAU Scholarship in 2012, then followed that up with a USTA Scholarship this past June and the Joel Ferrell Award for athletic achievement and sportsmanship. Her performance in Detroit also marked the end to a two-year contract she signed as a member of the USTA national team.The sophomore at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville traveled back to Effingham on a number of weekends during her freshman year, going to great lengths to balance the rigors of her academic, social and tumbling schedules.
She can now breathe a little easier, knowing at least her tumbling calendar has just been cleared.
"It's kind of a new beginning," the English major said. "I get to concentrate on a lot of other aspects I haven't really in a while. Maybe look into some other sports recreationally. When a sport is all you're about for several years, it's kind of nice to be finally free of that."
And a few gold medals to remember it by.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at email@example.com