By Gina Pongetti
The only gym with a trifecta of competitors in the senior women’s field at the 2017 U.S. Championships, Texas Dreams is a force to be reckoned with on the competition floor. The backstory? Kim Zmeskal and husband Chris Burdette have created an epicenter for training that focuses on success not only on the competition floor, but in life itself.
Zmeskal, the 1991 World Champion, uses her own success as an athlete to create a system centered on balance. From training schedules designed with ebb-and-flow mentality for peaking properly to a spirit of success beyond that mat, the program is a model of modern day training.
This year, the program has a total of six athletes competing at Championships—three in the junior division and three in the senior divisions. The three seniors are Ragan Smith (2017 American Cup Champion and 2016 Olympic alternate), Deanne Soza (2016 Gymnix 2nd AA,3rd UB, team gold), and Abi Walker (10th AA at 2017 U.S. Classic).
Led by Smith, the Olympic alternate charts the way for her senior teammates, and calms nerves for the younger generation. All on the heels of just finishing her first year as a senior competitor herself. “It’s different, kind of, being on the top,” Smith says. “I’m not the baby anymore!”
“Ragan, obviously is in a great place from the experiences that she’s had,” explained Zmeskal.
Others have also take note. “Her confidence level has just skyrocketed,” stated Ashton Locklear, fellow 2016 Rio Olympic alternate.
Before a meet, Smith says that she blocks out the expectations that have been placed on her since her quick rise. “After the meet, I embrace it,” Smith says with a smile.
She has embraced the role of a leader at the gym, an experienced competitor, knowing the work that must be put in. She moved on a fast track prior to Rio, and handled her role as alternate with grace and excitement. In 2016, she was the recipient of encouragement and guidance from the likes of Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. Now, in a role reversal, she’s the one giving out advice.
“You got this, don’t be nervous,” teammate Emma Malabuyo says Smith often tells her in the gym. “She is just wonderful to have!”
The Junior U.S. Classic Champion, Malabuyo is leading her own group of juniors that are chasing the seniors, including her teammates Annie Beard and Sydney Barros. Next year, Malabuyo will pop up to the senior group and join the other three current “dream team” seniors, with Beard (13) and Barros (12 ) remaining in the junior field.
“It feels really amazing to have, like our own team here at Nationals,” Malabuyo says. “They are here to support you.” She also says that when the stress may get to them, they turn to laughter and unity. Zmeskal has put in place motivational programs that focus on team harmony, largely fostered by simply lightening things up!
On a daily basis, Malabuyo and her fellow juniors stand right by the Seniors in the same workouts. A few hours in the morning, followed by school mid-day and another focused workout in the evening is their routine. And, apparently, a pretty good one.
“I watch the seniors during training,” Malabuyo notes. “They are so good, and hopefully one day I will be as good as them.”
Zmeskal is buzzing all day long. When most coaches may have one or two athletes at a national caliber meet, in one age division, she has to attend each practice, podium training, coaches meeting, along with husband and co-head coach, Chris, along the way. They thrive on the positive energy at the gym, creating and planning years in advance for their “dream team,” which consists of their highest-level athletes, with elite goals, who are ready to commit to the process. There are waves of athletes who come in and out, depending on the time of day, as the classrooms hold the various athletes either in the AM or PM sessions. Allowing the athletes to truly focus on school, their workouts, and their recovery and rehab equally leads to a solid, well-rounded kid on a controlled system.
The successful coach was elated to discover a fun fact: next Friday, August 25th, this group will be 12,13,14,15,16, and 17 years old. From Barros, the youngest, to Smith, the pint-sized veteran, they have the full spectrum covered.
“Abi didn’t have a season (last year),” Zmeskal says. “I wish she would have had another opportunity to do a junior season. Don’t put pressure on yourself to try to feel like you need to be something that your preparation and story hasn’t allowed to happen. One thing at a time.”
Soza is new to the scene, as a first-year senior, having moved from Arete Gymnastics after Championships in 2016 to train at Texas Dreams. She is a perfectionist, literally down to her immaculate toe point. Skipping Level 9, being out for a year with a severe eye infection, and switching gyms leads to a full five years. Her drive even led her, when she literally could not see, to practice at home to keep her skills up.
Her teammates speak of her positive vibe and attitude and welcoming her to the gym.
“She’s positive, and sweet all the time,” states Malabuyo.
Zmeskal is happy to help guide her career—both physical skill-wise as well as mental maturity. “Her goal right now is smile and be happy,” Zmeskal said. “When you finish something, make sure the first thing that you do is think of what you did right before you start criticizing yourself. We are trying to make her realize how truly wonderful she really is.”
Her junior brood is following in some wonderful footsteps, including even those not here, such as Baillie Key, who is committed to Alabama for NCAA. Junior competition, international travel, camps and working into the regimen is all a part of the end game of Senior National Team. Just think…28 years ago, in 1989, Zmeskal became the Junior National Champion at the age of 13.
As organized and together as they look, the younger ones are still fresh to the scene. Lucky for them, Zmeskal has been through meets, too many times to count, as an athlete and a coach. But having a built-in mentorship is great as well.
“Emma is our senior junior,” explains Zmeskal. “It’s really fun to watch, how they go from the ‘little kid,’ asking a million questions, such as Sydney and Annie…it’s very cute. I love that phase of it, where they don’t even know what we are doing next! The goal is when they are a “senior” junior, that they are ready to be a senior, and Emma is in that place, and that is awesome.”
Junior Annie Beard is a burst of energy, smiling ear to ear, no matter what. Serious about her goals, she recently qualified to junior elite status. There is a bit of resemblance between young, bouncy Annie and Zmeskal as a child in the sport. The ponytail, the posture, and the pure enjoyment watching her shine on floor.
“Annie has been a blast to be out here,” Coach Zmeskal said. “She adds a solid piece to the whole group, no matter where anyone is at. [And] we are just so proud of her [Sydney]. It is such a big thing to be here right now, so ambitious. She got back from Classics, and she wanted more.”
“They have been able to prepare as a squad,” Zmeskal stated. “It is very special. We haven’t had that for a while in the gym. To have that tight of a group, that can do anything, and it has really benefited them.”
Leadership, also, doesn’t have to come with age. Maturity and motivation can come from all around, and those who teach and learn can intertwine. Smith, the most experienced, has had some stress with her big skill of a double layout on floor, often finding comfort in the stand-by spot. Zmeskal explained, “Little Abi going out there saying ‘I don’t need a spot’ and Emma following suit” motivated Smith, the inherent leader, to use this to say “I can [do it without a spot], too!”
A competitive spirit backed by a let’s-have-fun-approach is paying dividends for the athletes, and the results speak for themselves. A true dream team indeed!
Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com