High School Sports

Irmo gymnast is at the TOP of her class

Maggie O'Hara walked into practice on Friday afternoon with a smile that stretched from one ear to the other.

She had just come from work and was clearly eager to begin her gymnastics training session at the Sunburst Gymnastics Academy.

On that day, work for Maggie consisted of multiplying decimals, discovering what exponents were, and learning about the continental and oceanic land forms of the earth-job characteristics that seem out of the ordinary, unless you're a fifth-grade student like Maggie.

Since her start in gymnastics at the age of five, Maggie has excelled.

One month ago, she learned that she will have the opportunity to take her talent to the next level.

Each summer, the Talent Opportunity Program evaluates the physical abilities of young female gymnasts on both the state and regional level before selecting the cream of that crop to participate on the national stage.

Mike Krotchko, one of several instructors who work with Maggie at the Sunburst Facility, explains how tough it is to make it onto the national scene.

"During the course of the summer, over 3,000 9-to-11-year-olds test," he said. "Then those picked advance to the test at one of the seven regions throughout the country. From there, 27 gymnasts of each age are picked to return and train on the national level. We're thrilled that Maggie was one of those 27 picked."

Krotchko, along with his wife, Candy, who also works with Maggie, are familiar with the TOP program because this is the third consecutive year that Sunburst Academy has had at least one gymnast qualify for testing on the national level.

Maggie will return to the U.S. National Team Training Center in Houston, Texas, for five days in early December to learn from and work with some of the top coaches, judges, and officials the sport has to offer.

The National Training Center also is known as Karolyi Ranch because it is run by two of the most prominent and recognizable figures in the gymnastics world, Bela and Marta Karolyi.

"Seeing and interacting with Marta and Bela when we went to qualify was almost surreal," said Maggie's mother, Michelle O'Hara. "They will have the whole national staff out there when we go back in December. All of the elite Olympic judges and coaches are out there training them for the week along with Marta and Bela, so it should be a great experience for Maggie."

The Karolyis have coached stars such as Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal and Kerri Strug, as well as many other world champions and Olympic medalists.

Maggie, 10, said she first learned of the Karolyis while watching a video of her idol, Comaneci, who was coached by the Karolyis for the duration of her career. Under the Karolyis' guidance, Comaneci won five gold medals and made history in the 1976 Olympics by becoming the first gymnast to receive a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastic event.

Comaneci was awarded the perfect score for her flawless performance on the uneven bars, which, fittingly, also is Maggie's favorite event.

"I love the uneven bars," she said. "It's a lot of fun to do and I think that it's my best event." Maggie received a score of 9.7 for one of her recent remarkable performances on the uneven bars.

On average, Maggie trains 20 hours a week at the Sunburst Complex. However, Michelle O'Hara said her daughter is fully aware that academics are the top priority.

"She's a very driven and very focused child, so we've never really had problems with her getting her work done," O'Hara said of her second eldest child. "She knows school comes first, and that she has to maintain good grades, otherwise we wouldn't allow her to come train. She knows what we expect and where her priorities are."

With time on her side and all the right people in her corner, Maggie continues to pursue her dream of competing in the Olympics and making a living as a professional gymnast.

But, if that doesn't work out, she wants to become a teacher or follow the footsteps of her mom and become a nurse practitioner.