I think that balance beam is the most underrated of all gymnastics events. It is by far the most mentally challenging, and often looms in the form of impending doom and casts fears and anxiety into the hearts of nearly every gymnast. Competing on balance beam is incredibly nerve-wracking. With just four inches (that's the width of an index card) of space underneath your feet, suspended four feet off the ground, you become instantly very self-aware. The slightest error in direction can be disastrous.
I had a love-hate relationship with beam growing up. Like many gymnasts, I spent many a tear-filled practice being afraid of some skill on beam and having mental blocks that prevented me from doing it. It wasn't until my junior year of college that I miraculously discovered the confidence I had been lacking on beam, and from that point on, I anchored my college team's beam lineup (the last person in the lineup is referred to as the "anchor" and is typically the strongest competitor). I learned to love beam, and now I still love beam. It's my favorite event to coach, and probably tied with floor with my favorite event to judge.
Beam can make or break a college team. A team can put up 6 competitors per event, and the top 5 scores count. The goal is to count all "hit" routines with no falls. A fall is a .5 deduction, and it is very easy to fall on beam. And since beam is such a mental event, it's very easy for a team who was winning after 3 events to have a bad beam rotation and lose the meet. In fact, last year's NCAA National Championships all came down to beam, and a mistake from top-ranked Alabama cost them the title.
Picking my 5 favorite beam routines was not easy, because there are so many wonderful beam workers competing collegiately. But I chose these 5 gymnasts because of their unique skills, innovation, and style.
#1: Kayla Gray (UNH)
When I think of beautiful beam workers, Kayla Gray immediately comes to my mind, and she competes as a beam specialist for our very own UNH Wildcats. Kayla has beautiful flexibility, extension, and lines, and shows impeccable grace and elegance on balance beam. She begins her routine with a difficult "L" turn (0:23), and does a front aerial to a side aerial for her acrobatic series (0:35), which is not only difficult to connect, but also a unique connection in a world full of back handspring back layouts. She also does a straddle jump full (or "popa") at 0:48, and has a beautiful rudi for a dismount (1:20).
#2: Taylor Spears (Oklahoma)
Taylor is a standout for Oklahoma and is one of the best and most consistent in the country on this event. She begins with a beautiful tic-toc mount (0:02). Her acrobatic series comes at 0:13 and it is one of the most difficult and unique in all of NCAA; it's an Onodi (a backwards jump half turn to front walkover) to immediate Korbut (back handspring swing-down). She also performs a front aerial to beat jump (0:40), and a beautiful back handspring to gainer full dismount (1:06).
#3: Maddie Gardiner (Oregon State)
Unfortunately, the only full video of her routine I could find is in practice, but I can assure you that she performs well in competition, especially being just a freshman. Maddie takes a lot of risks by doing a lot of big skills in this routine. Her first signature skill is that low full turn to a split (0:12), which is really cool and different. She does a back handspring back layout as her acrobatic series (0:30), and just because she can, she throws a few extra big tricks in there, like her front aerial (0:24), side somi (0:50), and her other signature skill, a barani with a single-leg finish (1:00). Keep in mind that the more skills there are in the routine, the more places there are to fall. But that doesn't seem to be a problem for Maddie!
#4: Sam Peszek (UCLA)
How could I begin to describe my love for Sam Peszek? You might recognize her from the 2008 Olympic Games, where she was a member of team USA. Sam is so great and her repertoire of skills is so vast that one year, she was battling a wrist injury, so she did an entire beam routine full of aerial skills (skills that don't require hand support on the beam) and still scored 9.9+. "No hands? No problem, I can still do beam!" Last year she suffered an achilles rupture that forced her to be sidelined for the season, but she's back and better than ever. Right off the bat, she starts off with a crazy 3-skill acrobatic connection: a front aerial to back handspring, step through to gainer layout stepout (0:10). And because that wasn't enough, she finishes her routine with a back handspring, back layout stepout, back layout full dismount (1:02). What I love about Sam is how solid she is on beam and how she looks like she's tumbling on a floor, rather than on a 4-inch wide block of wood.
#5: Danusia Francis (UCLA)
Danusia (or "Nush" as she is affectionately called) hails from Great Britain and was an alternate to the 2012 Great Britain Olympic Team. Last week, she scored a PERFECT 10.0 on beam; a score that she has been chasing for many years. Danusia has tremendous flexibility that she showcases throughout her routine, from her mount all the way through to the dismount. She does a front aerial to back handspring for her acrobatic series at 0:11 (I guess I really like front aerials?). She does a Y-turn at 0:40 which is extremely difficult to do on balance beam. But the real kicker comes at the 1:00 mark when she does her dismount: a sideways aerial to immediate back layout full dismount. Yes, she does an aerial on just FOUR INCHES of space and connects it to a back flip with a full twist... unbelievable! Nush is my favorite beam worker because she is the perfect combination of flexibility, elegance, boldness, and sass.
Be sure to head to UNH tomorrow (Saturday) at 2:00pm as the Wildcats host the EAGL Championships and see Kayla Gray's beautiful beam in person! More information is on the Spectrum facebook page!
Peace, love, and gymnastics,
Spectrum Gymnastics Academy
26 Buttrick Rd
About the Author
Coach Sarah is a former Rhode Island College gymnast, NCGA National qualifier, All-American, current gymnastics coach and judge, and contributor for the gymnastics news source, The Gymternet. Find out what's going on at Spectrum and learn more about the incredible sport of gymnastics!