Clay freshman Ashley O’Neal wasn’t taking any time off after competing at last weekend’s state gymnastics meet in Hilliard.
She didn’t need a break despite a long, injury-plagued season and, better yet, she didn’t want to take a day off. The 5-foot-9 O’Neal was right back in the gym two days after placing 31st out of 36 competitors in the balance beam event.
“I just love gymnastics, ever since I was little,” O’Neal said. “I’ve been doing it since I was 6 years old. I’ve had a lot of injuries to fight through but I’ve always come back, and I’m really determined.”
|Clay freshman Ashley O'Neal
on the balance beam.
Two years ago O’Neal broke her foot in five places when a golf cart she was riding in flipped over, forcing her to take a year off from gymnastics.
O’Neal suffered a concussion earlier this season after falling off a couch and hitting her head on a wall, and she suffered a hip flexor tear a little over a month ago that forced her to heavily wrap her hip.
“She was close to full strength at one meet this year,” Clay coach Nick Distel said. “Some meets she competed in two events; at districts she competed in all four, but the routines were watered down so we did not aggravate her injury.”
O’Neal qualified to the state meet by placing fourth on the beam at the district meet, with a score of 9.125. The top five district placers — out of 114 gymnasts — advanced to last week’s state meet at Hilliard Bradley High School.
“I think I did really well this year,” O’Neal said. “Having all those injuries and coming back, definitely the biggest goal I had was coming back. I really wanted to do well at districts and qualify to states, and I was happy about that. I never thought I would make it on beam. It’s not one of my favorite events. It was hard to get my skills back, but I worked through it and pushed through it. I made it to states and I’m so happy.”
Clay’s gymnastics team had competed at the state meet the last two years, but this year’s Eagles squad took fifth at the district meet. Only the top two teams advanced.
“We were full of injuries,” Distel said. “Almost every meet we had a different lineup due to injuries. I was proud of this year’s team. We were at full strength at one meet this season.”
O’Neal admitted she was nervous competing at the state meet.
“I had butterflies,” she said. “(Distel) was like, ‘hit your positions and do you your thing.’ It was definitely amazing. When I got there I was like, ‘am I really at states?’ It didn’t seem real until I got on the beam. I felt really honored being there. It was a great experience.”
O’Neal took a tumble off the beam during her routine and finished with a score of 8.2, good for 31st place.
“I was a little off on my roundoff, when you put hands on the beam and snap your feel down,” she said. “I was a little off on the side of that and fell. I got back on and finished strong. It’s important to stay on, but it’s important to keep a good head when you fall off, to get back on and finish. It was devastaing falling off at states. That’s where I wanted to do well the most.”
Save for the fall off the beam, Distel said O’Neal had a solid routine.
“Unfortunately, that’s how balance beam goes,” the coach said. “The smallest error can put you off the beam. If she stays on, she places in the top half, where I thought she would. With all her injuries and being a freshman, I was very proud of her to make it to state. I think it was a great experience and will only serve to help her in the future.”
O’Neal said the floor routine is her favorite event, but that won’t stop her from attempting to qualify to the state meet in the balance beam next season.
“Falling off just makes me want to get back on and do the routine again,” she said. “It definitely motivates me, seeing all the other gymnasts. I just want to do my routines over and over and perfect them so I can come back stronger next year. Hopefully I won’t have any more injuries, so I can do more than one event.”