Cael's her name, gymnastics is her game
If you were asked who Lebanon County's most accomplished, heavily recruited teenage athlete is what would your answer be?
It's not a basketball player with a smooth jump shot and big-time hops. It's not a football player with a nose for the end zone and breakaway speed. It's not a fireballing baseball or softball pitcher. Nope, nope and nope.
It is, without much doubt, 15-year old Palmyra Area High School freshman Cael Bixler, all 4-foot-9 of her. No lie.
Bixler is so talented and highly regarded as a gymnast - she trains full time, 6 days a week at Prestige Gymnastics in Lancaster - that she's already committed to take her talents to reigning national champion University of Oklahoma even though she's not yet old enough to drive.
Since gymnastics isn't a traditional varsity high school sport, most Lebanon County sports fans likely haven't heard of Bixler. But those that matter in the gymnastics world certainly have.
She took up the sport at the tender age of 4 and became a competitive gymnast for the first time at age 6, eventually reaching the highest level for junior gymnasts, Level 10, by the time she was in the 6th grade.
Now at the Junior International Elite level, Bixler has been trained by famed coach Valeri Liukin at his ranch in Texas, and met and trained with Olympians and National Team members Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, who will be a teammate of hers at Oklahoma.
Prior to committing to Oklahoma she was offered 12 full ride scholarships by top programs and began making recruiting trips at age 13 before deciding on Oklahoma the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year when still just 14.
Whew! Talk about a whirlwind.
"Now that it's happened it's kinda crazy," Bixler said, looking back on an experience most can only dream of. "Since it (going to Oklahoma) is so far away, it's like it's already done."
Though her intense training schedule keeps her from physically attending Palmyra full time - she takes classes and fulfills her academic obligations via cyber school - Bixler isn't completely anonymous among students at Palmyra. Her older sister Kelsei is a senior and standout distance runner for the school's track and field and cross country teams and will also be continuing her academic and athletic careers at Oklahoma.
"Some of the older kids will call me D-1," she says with a grin.
And with good reason, of course. Bixler, whose mother Shannon (Kalnoski) Bixler was an accomplished three-sport athlete at Cedar Crest and whose father Doug played soccer at Penn State, has got skills, particularly in her specialty event, the balance beam.
But she loves all the various gymnastics disciplines - vault, floor exercise and uneven bars - as well.
"I think the challenges of different skills," Bixler said of what she enjoys most about the sport. "I love the feeling of getting a new skill. Because before you could never do that, then when you get it it's exciting."
Not that any of it is easy. Bixler is a self-admitted perfectionist in all she does - from gymnastics to handwriting to playing the piano - which can be something of a burden for anyone juggling high-level athletics, academics and the simple pleasures of just being a normal kid.
"It's hard. It's a lot," she says. "Especially this year. I've had to go full cyber school because of my schedule with gymnastics. It's tough. I guess scheduling out what I have to do helps a lot. And my parents and my nana help me stay on top of it. And I have live class for an hour with each subject that I can talk to a teacher if I need help."
"You find that personality a lot with high-level gymnasts," Shannon said. "That discipline, that perfectionism, which is kind of a curse and a blessing. She's the kind of kid that'll write her name in cursive and then erase it."
But her parents and grandmother Sharon Kalnoski try not to add to that pressure, staying positive at all times and also encouraging Cael to not focus solely on gymnastics when it comes to athletics.
"She'll put pressure on herself," Sharon said. "We don't put pressure on her. I don't think we do. We tell her to do her best, but she'll put the pressure on herself if she doesn't get something the way she wants it to be."
That's why competing in soccer and track and cross country at the middle was such a blessing for Bixler.
"Soccer is a stress relief for me," said Cael, who delights in stories of how she frustrated bigger, stronger opponents with her soccer skills.
There are sacrifices to be made, however.
"I was able to go to the dances that have come up for school stuff," Cael said. "But I know my one friend was missing prom this year for Level 10 Nationals, which stinks. But I've been able to squeeze in a lot of good activities and still interact with school friends."
Cael also worries a bit about what could happen if she's hit with a sudden growth spurt. At 4-9, she's actually the ideal size for a gymnast, but a few more inches in height could change that scenario.
But that's an issue that may never come up. And even it does, she's already overcome bigger challenges.
"Kelsei was born with low respiratory function, and she's my distance runner," Shannon said. "Cael was born with both hips dislocated and she's my gymnast. They were both kinda crazy in their deliveries, but it worked out."