Five girls headed to compete for gymnastics team

Five local girls with Olympic dreams are headed to Texas for a chance to train at famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi's ranch.

The young gymnasts are among about 200 athletes chosen to compete for a spot on the national Talent Opportunity Program team, sponsored by USA Gymnastics. If the girls make the national team, they'll be able to train at the sprawling Houston ranch of Karolyi. He has trained 28 Olympic medal-winning gymnasts, including Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and Dominique Moceanu.

"The program was developed to fast-track younger kids. It's a real jump start," said Judy Prestigiacomo-Miller, the Georgia TOPs representative and a coach at Georgia Gymnastics Academy in Lawrenceville.

Two of Prestigiacomo-Miller's students, 10-year-old Katy Clements and 10-year-old Mallory Moredock, are among the group of eight Georgia gymnasts leaving Friday for three days of testing in Houston. Three gymnasts from Gwinnett Gymnastics Center in Lilburn - Kelley Aycock, 9; Sydney Converse, 9; and Memory Shettles, 11 - will also compete.

The girls will be tested on their gymnastics skills as well as their strength and flexibility, and most of the gymnasts have been training for up to 25 hours a week to prepare for the testing.

"The gymnasts who make it into the program should be very strong, very flexible and have what it takes to become a high-level athlete," said Dan Thaxton, owner of Gwinnett Gymnastics Center.

On Wednesday, Mallory and Katy were hard at work at their Lawrenceville gym, working on their balance beam, vault and floor skills. The girls said they were excited, and a little nervous, about the upcoming tests.

"They need to work pretty hard before going," Prestigiacomo-Miller said.

Getting a chance to work with Karolyi's training staff would be a great opportunity, Mallory said.

"I'd get to work on stuff we usually don't do here," Mallory said.

Even if they don't make it to the Olympics, many Tops gymnasts will join other national teams, such as the USA Gymnastics Elite Program, designed for athletes who want to join the USA Gymnastics National Team. USA Gymnastics is a nonprofit group that governs the sport of gymnastics in the United States.

"I think most of them are working toward being an Elite gymnast, and if that didn't work, then studying gymnastics in college," Prestigiacomo-Miller said.

In fact, at Georgia Gymnastics Academy gyms in Lawrenceville and Suwanee, the coaches train all of their 1,600 gymnasts with a goal of helping them get college scholarships, she said.

While most of the gymnasts at the academy train about 20 hours a week, the TOPs gymnast hopefuls come in an extra five hours each week, Prestigiacomo-Miller said. Spending so much time in the gym helps the young gymnasts learn how to spend their time wisely, the coaches said.

"It's a hard sport," Prestigiacomo-Miller said. "Girls who do make it through will do really well in school and in life."