MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Something had to change.
West Virginia University junior gymnast Beth Deal
was faced with a crippling dilemma. In an effort to shake-up her routine, Deal, a two-year mainstay in the Mountaineers’ beam lineup, added a “McCool” mount. The skill is not easy to master. In short, a gymnast takes a running start toward the beam, jumps on to the springboard, plants both hands on the beam and does a complete flip until both feet replace the hands on the apparatus.
Deal welcomed the challenge. Unfortunately, the Parkersburg, W.Va., native was not able to consistently hit the skill. Though she mounted the beam successfully in the team’s season opener at Kentucky on Jan. 10, she suffered shaky moments throughout warm-ups. That outing was followed by a fall on the mount the next weekend at Maryland.
Just two weeks into the 2014 season, Deal stood at a crossroad. A self-described “natural-born leader,” she despised shaking her teammates’ confidence in her. She knew the season could not go on without a change.
“That routine gave me a lot of anxiety – something I wasn’t even fully aware of until we removed the mount,” Deal explained. “It didn’t boost my confidence. I knew my coaches and teammates were slightly hesitant every time I went to compete, and you don’t want your team to doubt you.
“I learned the hard way with the falls, but since we took that mount out, I know everyone has a lot more confidence in me.”
Since her fall at Maryland on Jan. 17, Deal has hit nine-for-nine routines and scored 9.8 or better seven times.
“This is the routine I won EAGLs with,” Deal said of her balance beam victory as a freshman at the 2012 East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) Championship. “It changed for a reason, but I’m excited to be competing it again. It comes easy to me, and I don’t have the anxiety I carried around with the other one.”
In addition to the mount adjustment, Deal increased her repetitions in training, determined to solidify her place as the lineup’s rock.
“I’m very much a pressure-kid, and I love competing,” she said. “I knew that when I was struggling, I didn’t want to see my spot on the team slip away. I did everything to get this routine on track - I took more reps and tried different skills. I wasn’t going to let my early struggles determine whether I was in the lineup or not.”
Competing in the beam lineup’s fifth position, Deal followed at least one fall six times this season, giving her ample opportunity to excel in pressure situations. One such instance arose at then-No. 2 Florida on March 7. Deal stared down the beam knowing that her squad would already count a fall, as two teammates took a tumble earlier in the lineup. While a balance check or two would have been understandable, given the pressure to hit and the fact WVU was competing in front of 4,500 fans, Deal competed one of her most solid routines of the season and turned in a 9.875, earning her a share of fifth place.
That road performance followed Deal’s top career showing, as she won the beam crown at The Perfect 10 Challenge on Feb. 21 with a 9.95 score. Only seven other Mountaineer gymnasts had previously hit the mark, the second-best score in the program’s 40 years.
“We went back to what we knew worked for Beth,” says Mountaineer coach Jason Butts. “I would say she hasn’t taken a step back this year. Her junior season has been a growing experience for her. I think she’s had to grow up a bit early, but that will help her down the line.
“Beth exudes confidence. Sometimes, that confidence can be intimidating, but I think it’s a great quality, especially for a young female student-athlete.”
Big road scores like those mentioned, along with her 9.9, second-place showing at the Big 12 Gymnastics Championship on March 22 at the WVU Coliseum, have pushed Deal to the nation’s No. 31 ranking with a 9.865 regional qualifying score (RQS). In a season which saw the Mountaineers miss qualifying for the NCAA Regional Championships by 0.01 of a point, Deal’s steadiness on beam has paid off, as she, along with three of her teammates, has individually qualified for the NCAA Athens Regional Championships, set for this Saturday, April 5, at 4 p.m., at Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum. Deal qualified as the Southeast region’s top beam specialist.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” she said of her team’s failure to qualify for the NCAA competition. “It’s an eye-opener for everyone. This isn’t a trend we’re going to continue. Next year, it shouldn’t even be a question – we will qualify for regionals. It should be a given. This team is so talented and awesome, our goal should be the national championships. Regionals shouldn’t be a question.”
Deal will compete alongside freshman Alexa Goldberg
, the region’s top uneven bars specialist, and rotate with sixth-seeded Rutgers. Senior Hope Sloanhoffer
and freshman Nicolette Swoboda
also qualified and will compete in the all-around. The duo will rotate with No. 6-ranked Georgia and NC State, respectively.
“It’s a bummer; it’s going to be very hard to be with another team and not my own,” Deal elaborated. “I have to view this chance as an opportunity to represent WVU and show a different part of the country how awesome a team we are. There are four of us competing – that’s huge.”
Deal will have to win the balance beam to advance to the 2014 NCAA National Championships. In line with her confident outlook on life, Deal believes she can win the title this weekend. Though her season will end if she does not, her drive for success will continue to burn, as she already has one eye on her senior season.
“I’m really excited to be a senior,” she said. “I feel like I’m a natural-born leader and I just want to see others succeed. We’ve gone through a lot of adversity this year, and I feel like I will have more of a voice next year. My classmates and I are all best friends, and that’s going to help this team succeed. We all have the same goal in mind, and that’s going to help us all be on the same page.”
“Sometimes you just have to be strong, and Beth is a strong person,” Butts followed. “Even when she is the one that falls and makes the mistake, she doesn’t let that get her down – she cheers louder. I think she is one of those people that can put a lot of weight on her shoulders. She knows this team will never miss regionals again. I love that she’s talking about going to the NCAA Championships next year. She and I are both realists, and we know this team has what it takes to qualify for nationals next year.”
With her senior season on the horizon, Deal has one last task to complete this year. She and her teammates traveled to Athens, Ga., Thursday and will participate in the practice session on Friday. Deal and Rutgers will open the meet on beam, and she will be the seventh gymnast to mount the apparatus.
“I’m really happy with my performances this season, and I honestly feel like I’m competing my best gymnastics right now,” Deal concluded. “I’m peaking at the right time. I feel really good about myself, and I’m very fortunate to be in the position that I’m in this weekend.”