At one end of York's Skyline Gymnastics Center, Sarah McCarty asks for an Eminem instrumental to be turned up, then she takes a deep breath, and starts sprinting toward the middle of the floor.
"Go, Sarah!" A few younger gymnasts yell, and every head in the gym turns toward McCarty.
After three strides and a hop comes a series of gravity-defying, acrobatic moves that make McCarty seem like she is floating through the air rather than somersaulting or flipping. At one point, the 18-year-old is upside down with her whole body at least 6 to 7 feet off the ground. Then a perfect dismount.
"Good job, Sarah!"
McCarty recently committed to Kent State University on a full-ride scholarship — a rarity in the gymnastic world. But, on this day, she's putting on a show while preparing for the upcoming season. The Northeastern senior is one of the oldest of 40 to 50 young gymnasts in the gym, and every other young girl had stopped to admire her routine. That's the effect she has, Skyline coach Gabby Ganescu says. You can't help but be drawn to what she does.
"All the little girls stop and admire her," Ganescu said. "We use her as an example. I tell the girls, 'If you want to tumble or vault like Sarah, look at how she works.'"
It wasn't always like that, Ganescu added.
"When she was younger, she didn't strike me as a very good gymnast," Ganescu said, laughing. "Then all of a sudden, she bloomed and got comfortable. She has progressed over the years, this wasn't an overnight thing. This took perseverance, and she's always working hard. She never misses a practice."
McCarty, who has worked her way up through the gymnastics ranks, is one of the best to ever come through the gym, Ganescu added. She's in rare air — a level 10 gymnast — which only a few hundred in the country reach. It's the highest level before elite, Olympian level.
What's her key to success?
"Just land on your feet," she said. "Coaches will tell me, 'This was good but point your toes more, or do this.' I'm not too worried about where my toes are pointed, I'm just trying to land on my feet and not my face."
After seeing her compete in nationals two seasons ago and regionals last season, college coaches started to take notice. Temple University and Kent State University offered full scholarships — room, board, tuition, dining — the whole package. The University of Maryland offered her a walk-on spot.
After joining gymnastics as a "bouncy, restless" two-year-old, and sticking with it because she "loves the thrill of doing high-flying skills that not a lot of people can do," McCarty started to realize she might be able to continue her gymnast career at the next level.
"I never thought I would make it this far," she said. "A few years ago, I thought about quitting. I thought, 'Why keep hurting my body and frustrating myself?' But I've been doing it for so long, I stuck with it. I can't imagine my life without gymnastics. It's part of me. I love it."
But with two scholarship offers on the table, McCarty's college decision took a twist in the spring. After offering McCarty a scholarship, Temple's coach was dismissed in March. And when the Owls' new coach temporarily rescinded all scholarships while the staff re-evaluated recruits, it left McCarty's college future in flux. That's when McCarty opened the door for Kent State. She visited and loved the campus. She watched practices, stayed in the dorms with the girls on the gymnastic team and hung out with them at the homecoming football game.
McCarty loved how close the girls were and how it felt comfortable, she said. Then, Temple called and re-offered her a scholarship.
"I was so stressed, I would keep making lists with pros and cons for each one, then throw them away," McCarty said. "It was a really tough decision. My best friend is on the team at Temple right now so it was hard to choose. Then finally I was, 'OK, I really like the campus and the team, and I think I can get into the nursing program. I like Kent State."
McCarty will sign her National Letter of Intent next month at Northeastern, then it's off to Kent, Ohio, next fall, where McCarty has her eyes set on making the starting lineup and winning a conference title.
"After we got to see the team win the conference championship last year and saw the ring ceremony, we said we're going to win that our freshman year," McCarty said with a smile. "We want those rings."