By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Taylor Keeker can do things on a 4-inch balance beam that most people would be afraid to do on solid ground attached to a safety rig with spotters.
“Right now I’m working on a back handspring layout step out,” said Keeker, a gymnast, and McNary High School senior. At a recent meet she split the beam – landed straddling the bar with a leg on either side – during the maneuver. “It hurts, but it happens.”
While some athletes bemoan the time needed to excel at their sport, few have the tenacity of gymnasts. A typical week for Keeker means daily drives to Portland’s Multnomah Athletic Club for four-hour training sessions after school and an additional five- or six-hour regimen on the weekend.
“That includes warm-ups and conditioning and about 45 minutes working each routine from uneven bars to floor to vault and high beam,” she said.
While the training is intense, Keeker has gotten noticed for her talent. She’s currently considering a walk-on role at Oregon State University next year, but hasn’t committed to anything. She’s a Level 10 in the sport, the highest ranking a gymnast can receive below elite, which is typically reserved for Olympic hopefuls.
During spring break, her coaches added an extra hour to the daily practice in order to prepare for the state meet held this weekend in Eugene. If she passes muster at the state meet, she’ll qualify for regionals and a solid performance at regionals will put her back at nationals. If she makes it this year, it will be her fourth year competing in nationals as a level 10.
“I’m doing some watered-down routines right now because I’ve struggled with some injuries in the past couple of years (she’s broke both feet), but nationals is where we pull out the big moves and leave it all on the mat because there’s nothing to lose,” she said.
Keeker started in gymnastics at age five, but didn’t commit to its full rigors until the fourth grade. Along the way she had to let go of soccer and softball pursuits.
“It was hard not to keep going with them, but I had already put so much into gymnastics I would have felt worse if I hadn’t kept going. It’s cool to go out and do flips all day,” she said.
While she competes in all four elements, uneven bars and floor are her personal favorites.
“My best event, right now, is bars, but that wasn’t always the case. It only clicked recently, but I love the floor routines. It’s the only event where you really get to perform and I like that,” she said.
After so many years, fear doesn’t enter into the equation as much as adrenalin and nerves threaten to overtake her ability to do a forward flip as she soars over the top of the tallest uneven bar.
“I’m not afraid to do any skills, it’s just the stress of the competition,” she said. “It comes down to knowing your body, we do a lot of mental work and visualizing of routines.”
One of the most striking things about her performances, which can can be seen on YouTube, is her height. While most gymnasts top out at about 5-foot-2, Keeker hit a growth spurt between her freshman and sophomore years that brought her up to 5-foot-6.
“I had to relearn a lot of stuff when that happened,” she said. Her length now accentuates the maneuvers in ways a more compact gymnast doesn’t benefit from.
Aside from peak physical conditions, Keeker’s parents, Larry and Angie, appreciate the focus it’s given her in other aspects of life.
“I definitely learned how to be focused, but this year has been different because I’ve been trying to have more of a social life,” she said.
As the move to college athletics looms closer, Keeker’s gotten what she calls a more realistic view of what’s going to be possible as far as her future.
“When we’re kids we all look up to the Olympic gymnasts, but as we get older, we actually get to meet some of them and the ones who get to go to the Olympics have usually picked up and moved somewhere close to a private coach and they’ve been training that intensely since they were eight.” Keeker said. “For a lot of the older girls in the sport, we mostly look up to each other.”