After 15 years of devotion, Tarah Chess is down to her final days as a competitive gymnast. If the worst-case scenario comes to pass, it could end today at Central Valley High School. Best case? A week from today at the Tacoma Dome.
Either way, she’s not above using her fast-approaching retirement as a motivator. It’s what team captains do, after all. They motivate.
“I’ve mentioned it a few times,” the University senior said with a laugh. “I think the fact that this is it for all of our seniors adds an air of urgency that everyone feels and it makes us work that much harder. We’re very much a team and we work hard to keep each other focused and relaxed. We’re there for each other and we don’t want to let each other down.”
Today the Titans compete in the class 3A/2A/1A regional tournament, where just one team will earn a chance to compete for a state team title at next week’s state championship meet. University must battle Shadle Park, its Greater Spokane League Class 3A rival, and the defending state champions from Kamiakin.
Kamiakin comes into today’s tournament having won the Columbia Basin/Big Nine district tournament last week.
The Titans are more than up to the challenge, the captain said.
“We’re capable of making it to state as a team,” Chess said. “We just have to be focused and we have to not make silly mistakes. That’s what killed us last year. I still haven’t gotten over not making it to state last year.”
In the days leading up to today’s meet, Chess said, she dreamed about this meet and its outcome. After all the years of gymnastics training – the pains and strains – Chess’ career comes down to that one over-arching goal:
“I want all of my teammates to make it to state – I want us to go to state as a team,” she said. “I went to state in the floor exercise as a freshman and it was a great experience. But the whole time I was there I was wishing my teammates could have been there with me.
“My individual goals don’t matter,” she added. “I’ll be disappointed in anything less.”
In the world of gymnastics, the regional meet is generally more nerve-wracking than state. The number of qualifiers earning a trip to Tacoma are few: One team, two all-around gymnasts and five individual qualifiers per exercise.
“Once you get to state you can kind of relax and just let it go,” Chess said. “There’s an intensity to the state meet, but it is more of a relaxed intensity. You can just leave it all out there and go for it.
“At regionals you’re watching everyone and counting scores and doing everything you can to qualify. Your whole season could end and you don’t want that to happen, so you stay on edge.”
But she’s used to that kind of pressure.
Chess started her gymnastics career as a 3-year-old.
“I started out going to daddy-daughter classes,” she recalls, then quickly adds, “(Dad would) be embarrassed if he knew I told you that!”
There were years of club gymnastics success. But to Chess, her four years with the University varsity have been the highlight.
“When you compete in club and you make it to state, you do it alone,” she explained. “In high school gymnastics, it’s totally different.
“For starters, you have a wide range of abilities. You have people like me who have done years of club gymnastics and are pretty advanced and you have girls who have never done anything in gymnastics before turning out. Our coaches, Tracy Duncan and Karen Renner, do a great job bringing everyone along and helping them compete. That’s what makes it special: You become a team. You may be up there all alone on the balance beam, but once you dismount you’re part of a whole team.”
Duncan and Renner, also two of the area’s top gymnastics judges, help their athletes tailor their routines.
“It makes sense to do whatever you can to connect with the judges, especially when you’re doing floor exercise,” Chess said. “That’s why we all stand around the mat while our teammates compete wearing big cheesy smiles – it sounds silly, but smiling while you compete helps you connect. We do that with every event – we help each other. That’s what I love about this team.”
The regional rotation lays out perfectly for the Titans, the captain said. The team opens with the vault, then moves on to the uneven bars, balance beam and the floor exercise.
Opening with the vault helps get over the pre-event nerves with a run, an explosive bounce and a couple seconds of midair mastery.
“It’s over in just a couple seconds and it really settles you down,” Chess said. “The bars are a good event for us. The key for us is going to be the balance beam – it’s been that way all year. We have to eliminate mistakes and we can’t fall. That’s what will make or break us. The floor exercise is our strength. If we make it through the beam without hurting ourselves, we’ll bring it home on the floor exercise.”
The two final events are strengths for Chess. The floor exercise has been her forte since she first donned U-Hi colors and stepped on the mat. The beam, however, has been her nemesis.
The balance beam is just 4 inches wide and 4 feet high. And while it may look easy, Chess insists, it can also be ever-so-cruel.
“Balance beam has been my biggest challenge my whole career,” she said. “I’ve focused a lot on it and this year I’ve been doing pretty well. It would be nice to end my career knowing I finally mastered that sucker!
“Personally, I would like to make it to state in the beam and the floor – but I’m not even thinking about that. I just want to go as a team.”