MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - West Virginia gymnast Alaska Richardson knew there was no turning back as soon as her hand slid across the vault table. The junior’s options were limited – try to save the vault and risk hyper-extending her knees, or abort her first vault routine of the 2012 season and land on her butt in front of 1,000-plus Mountaineer fans at the WVU Coliseum.
“The first thing that popped in my head was ‘oh crap!’” the Dayton, Ohio, native laughed. “I just remember that I had to get around and bend my knees. The last thing you want to do is straighten your knees and hyper-extend them; I didn’t want to do that.”
Richardson opted to abort the vault. One of the team’s strongest vaulters and competing in the lineup’s No. 5 spot, she did not land on her feet and earned 8.95 points for her attempt, a far cry from her career-best score of 9.9.
Yet, instead of wallowing in the mistake, Richardson, one of only five upperclassmen on this season’s gymnastics squad, shook off the error and focused on the positives.
“I didn’t even try to save it,” she explained. “I know that if I hit a vault, it will score pretty high, but we had already had four girls hit, and I knew I had Hope (Sloanhoffer) behind me and that she would hit. I knew I could save myself for floor because my teammates had already done so well.
“When I landed on my butt, I just told myself to get up and keep going. I wasn’t happy because I knew I could do better than that, but I’m glad that I was able to walk away from the attempt instead of being out with an injury all season.”
Richardson was not the only one happy she opted to abort the routine and accept the fall.
“That decision showed her maturity growth,” said first-year coach Jason Butts. “I know that kind of a fall was scary for Alaska, but she was able to shake all of that off and compete strong on floor.”
Richardson finished fifth on floor with a career-best 9.825 score.
“I had so many fans come up to me after the meet and tell me that was their favorite routine,” expanded Butts. “That’s a huge testament to Alaska, and I hope that her teammates learned a lesson from the way she carried herself.”
Richardson’s growth and maturity is evident early this season. One of the most-powerful Mountaineer gymnasts, she has regained a spark in her routines that she readily admits was absent last season.
“I realized over the course of this last preseason that I was meant to be at WVU,” she said before pausing. “My freshman year, I came in and was just happy to be here. Then, when season started, I realized what college was all about. By my sophomore year, I had gotten better, but I knew I still had some growing to do.
“This preseason, I just worked on my cardio a lot more and remembered that I was meant to be at WVU. I reminded myself that I could do everything I wanted to do. I just told myself that every day. I also realized that the coaches wouldn’t have asked me to join the team if they didn’t see potential in me. I finally just told myself to get it together, and my confidence has grown a lot.”
While Richardson credits her increased stamina to her hard work in the gym and the team’s preseason strength and conditioning workouts, she believes her confidence first got a shot to the arm last season.
Struggling with a new vault at the onset of the year, Richardson was pulled from the lineup early and relegated to alternate status. After exhibitioning her vault in three straight meets, she returned to the lineup at Penn State on Feb. 6 and promptly earned a career-best 9.9 score.
“That meet was probably the best feeling ever; I will never forget that meet,” she enthused. “I just remember landing that vault and not moving. I looked over at (team manager) Jenn (Sharon), and she reminded me to salute the judges! I did it quickly and ran off to my teammates.
“I will never forget that moment – every hair on my body stood up.”
Richardson earned a 9.875 score in the next immediate meet and also scored 9.85 at the East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) Championship, good enough for fifth place. She ended the season with seven vault scores of 9.75 or better and ranked No. 18 in the Southeast region with a 9.81 regional qualifying score.
A true believer in positive thinking, Richardson, a speech pathology and audiology major, says she took a mental picture of that 9.9 vault and uses it as motivation.
“If I was able to stick my vault then, I should be able to stick it again,” she said. “You just always have to remember all of the good things. Everything good in the gym will help me later. Even the bad days – if I was able to do it on a crappy day, then it should just come natural any day.”
Richardson’s positive thinking is infiltrating her teammates’ outlooks, too, as she has assumed the role of “Mountaineer motivator.”
“That (motivating) is what we all have to do,” she explained. “Me? I just usually put an extra emphasis on team cheering because it helps me out personally, and it brings smiles to my teammates’ faces. I like to see that!”
“Alaska leads this team through her personality,” said Butts. “She is the jokester and always lightens the mood. She has a huge personality, and I think that benefits this team, especially when we hit a rough patch in the gym. She is now one of the first ones to step up and make a joke. She resets this team.”
Richardson hopes to lead the Mountaineers straight to the NCAA Championships this season; it would be the squad’s fourth appearance and first since 2000. She says the first step to reaching that goal is for WVU to score a 196.0-plus mark. After achieving 195.1 points in their season opener on Jan. 8, a program-best season opening point total, Richardson believes high marks are within grasp.
“We earned that score with little minor mistakes – just think about what we can achieve once we clean those up in Cary Gym,” she mused. “There should be no reason why we can’t compete with the best teams in the nation.
“Like Jason says – we are a 196 team. We can go to nationals as long as we put our mind to it. We can not let bad meets get in our way. As long as we get out there and have fun and continue doing what we did in our first meet, we can let all of the pressure go. We just have to ride the season out and do what we’ve been doing. I think it should all be there for us at the end of the road.”
The road to the national championships continues this afternoon for the Mountaineers (1-1, 1-0 EAGL), as they play host to EAGL foe Rutgers at 2 p.m., at the Coliseum.
Fans can purchase tickets to Sunday’s meet at the door, with tickets for adults available for $5 and for youth and seniors for $3 each. Groups of 10 or more can purchase tickets for $2 each.
A free WVU student shuttle bus will be available from the Mountainlair and the Brooke/Braxton Towers loop for an hour leading up to the meet’s start time. Return service to the Mountainlair and the Brooke/Braxton Towers loop also will be available at the conclusion of the meet.
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