After a 10-hour drive Wednesday, Keeley Kmieciak will be at her new home in Norman, OK. The 17-year-old graduate of is leaving Naperville for the University of Oklahoma.
An elite gymnast, Kmieciak will begin her studies this month at the university and begin training with its gymnastics team. After visiting a number of schools, she signed with the University of Oklahoma and is receiving an athletic scholarship. If she is lucky, she may get the chance to compete her freshman year—something that is fairly rare.
Getting to OU took years of dedication and hard work, for which Kmieciak began as a tot just having fun tumbling.
When she was 3 years old, Kmieciak began going to gymnastics classes at the , but it was really just about having fun back then.
“The reason I got into gymnastics was both my older sisters did it and at that age, I looked up to them,” Kmieciak said. “I wanted to do flips. It was fun.”
When she became more serious about gymnastics, she started working with the coach who would train her for the next 10 years.
As a child, Kmieciak did other sports, including ballet and soccer. If she hadn’t pursued gymnastics, soccer would have been her chosen sport, she said.
At one point when the competition started to get more intense and she was moving up in the difficulty level, Kmieciak’s coach Jess Holtz told her she needed to make a choice: soccer or gymnastics. She didn’t have to think hard about it, and knew gymnastics was the sport for her.
“It’s so unlike other sports,” she said. “You get to go upside down. … When you get a new skill, it’s so exciting.”
She’s been part of the Phenom Gymnastics team and has competed on the national level, most recently winning nationals last month.
Kmieciak has competed at Level 10 in gymnastics, which is an elite ranking.
She completed her pre-college competition with a successful season as a representative of the region’s top seven gymnasts at the 2012 Junior Olympic National Championship in Hampton, VA on May 13. Kmieciak won 1st place in All Around, Floor Exercise and Vault. This was the second year she won the National Championship.
Her record-breaking career included qualifying for the Region 5 All Star Team five times and earning two perfect 10.0’s this season on vault, which no other club gymnast has ever accomplished, according to a news release. Last year, she won every event and the All Around at the 2011 Junior Olympic National Championship; a new USAG record as no gymnast in the 20-year history of Nationals has ever won every event and the All Around.
“I wanted to have a great end to the season,” Kmieciak said. “A lot of the girls have been with me for years, we just had a great meet.”
During competition, Kmieciak said her bar routine went well and her balance beam was “pretty good.” It was good enough that her determination to have a skill named after her paid off.
“The Kmieciak,” a complicated balance beam skill, was recently named in her honor and will appear in the USA Junior Olympic Code of Points.
Moving forward to new things is exciting for Kmieciak, who hopes she can take her abilities to a new level as she works with a new coach and a new team.
Unlike some students who know exactly where they want to go to college, Kmieciak said she didn’t have one particular choice. She took a road trip across the south with her mother, Mari, searching out some of the best schools including LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
She heard a lot of good things about Oklahoma, she said.
“I knew Oklahoma was where I wanted to go,” she said. “It’s hard to say why; the girls, the coaches, the campus. I feel like it’s my home away from home.”
Her parents, Gary and Mari, were a bit hesitant to have her going to school so far away, but “they liked the head coach and felt safe leaving me there.”
Kmieciak has two older sisters, Lauren and Nicole, and a younger sister Lia, who right now also loves gymnastics.
“My family has been super supportive of me through my injuries and fears,” she said. “They have always been there even when gym has been bad.”
Her paternal grandmother known as “G” has been one of her biggest supporters over the years, rarely missing a meet even though she’s had two hip replacements and a knee replacement.
“It means so much to me,” Kmieciak said.
The training has been rigorous, most recently four hours a day four times a week. And, there have been a few injuries over the years, including a broken back. She’s learned that hard work and determination pays off, which translates to school and life.
“There’s been several times I thought, 'do I really want to do this, it’s so much work,'” she said. “It’s something I’m so passionate about … even when I’m not working out, I will still be doing handstands.”