On most days in December and January, West Springfield High’s auxiliary gym beholds the soaring flips and graceful prances of gymnasts with different stories to tell.
South County senior Ashley Druggan, a gymnast since the age of six, complements her acrobatic twists on the uneven bars with time spent as an All-American cheerleader for Northern Virginia’s Infinity All-Stars. Freshman Allison Leibrandt, meanwhile, has used her club experience at Cardinal Gymnastics to make her West Springfield’s top scorer this season. Samantha Overstreet, a senior at Hayfield, credits much of her success to CrossFit workouts and varsity cheerleading. And Lee senior Leah Michetti is a former Patriot District champion who maintains a 4.3 GPA.
Yet watching them happily practice alongside one another doesn’t uncover varying backgrounds so much as underscore an unusual sense of unity shared by all. Despite hailing from four different high schools, these gymnasts and their teammates pool together coaches and resources to take on the appearance of one big team.
At the forefront of this hodgepodge is Val Taguding, a former nationally ranked gymnast who signed on to coach Robert E. Lee High’s gymnastics team five years ago before helping to start up Hayfield’s team in 2010. He filled West Springfield’s coaching vacancy that same year, and last month he added South County’s new program to the mix.
Taguding sacrificed part of his stipend so that the district could afford hiring additional assistant coaches for each school. The result has everyone under one roof, building skills and relationships even as the prospect of competing against each other looms.
“Sometimes it can get hectic, but we really enjoy this atmosphere because by having four teams, they get to see really good gymnasts, so they have people to mentor them,” Taguding said. “It’s a really good relationship. It’s like having a sister school, even though we have three that are competing in the same district.”
While some of the girls carry plenty of experience from years of training at the club level, others are relative novices just trying to master the basics of gymnastics. That blend creates a loose environment where gymnasts are concerned with helping each other out as much as they are focused on improving their own routine.
Girls on each team typically bring lessons from related disciplines such as dance and cheerleading to the mats.
“Gymnastics is kind of a mix of cheer and dance, so it’s really familiar to everything,” Hayfield junior Caitie Holliday said. “Most of the girls here are either gymnasts or cheerleaders, so they kind of struggle with the dance part, but I kind of struggle with the other part because I’m a better dancer.”
The eclectic array of backgrounds makes for a unique coaching challenge. Taguding works alongside multiple assistant coaches from each school, ensuring that his athletes are learning in a safe environment as they rotate from station to the station around the gym.
“I think you do more coaching when you have a lot of the beginner ones and you have to start from scratch. You have some schools out there that have all club kids and their routines are already made,” Taguding said. “The basic thing is that there’s a mix. That’s what makes it so fun and interesting.”
That mix includes three schools from the Patriot District, which is set to hold its annual tournament at Lake Braddock on Tuesday. In order to compete in districts, gymnasts must have competed in at least three meets during a short regular season that typically only includes five or six meets over the span of about a month. For that reason, coaches don’t always set their regular season lineups with only winning in mind. Getting everyone involved to assure district meet eligibility is often a higher priority than claiming first-place scores.
Even with their biggest competition of the season right around the corner, Taguding’s Patriot District squads aren’t exactly goading each other with taunts during their daily practices. The individual nature of gymnastics encourages the girls to support each other no matter what color their leotard.
Still, competitive juices will no doubt spill into the meet, where W.T. Woodson looks to be the favorite with Lake Braddock and West Springfield trailing not far behind on points this season.
“We cheer everyone on because it’s an individual event, but of course we want to beat them,” said Druggan, whose younger sister, Kelsey, is also on South County’s team. “But we still like to watch them and hope they do well.”
South County launched its gymnastics team last month in response to interest from students who were disappointed by the elimination of the school’s winter cheer program two years ago. Director of Student Activities Mike Pflugrath, whose wife coached gymnastics at Woodson for seven years, was eager to further strengthen the standing of an eight-year-old athletic department with a high rate of female student athlete participation. Pflugrath solicited the help of his school’s booster club to afford the expensive endeavor, which required about $9,000 to get off the ground. That total doesn’t even include equipment costs, since the team’s nine gymnasts practice at West Springfield.
Despite the sport’s expensive nature and significant time commitment - practices run from Tuesday through Saturday - coaches and athletes are eager to immerse themselves in an activity that pushes body and mind beyond preconceived boundaries. Pursuing such a challenging sport at the high school level removes much of the mental stress that accompanies club gymnastics while also tightening bonds with students from rival schools.
“We got some huge compliments from one of our parents the other day,” West Springfield assistant coach Renée Waldrop said. “Their girls were club girls, and the parents came up to us and said, ‘Our girls just love coming to the high school gymnastics’ and it’s because the pressure is off. We’re out there to teach them new skills. They work themselves to learn new things, but they do it to have fun.”