Steady and Strong

  • By Shannon McNamara
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  • February 26, 2011 08:00 AM
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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - There is a brief moment in West Virginia gymnast Nicole Roach’s beam routine where the fans in the stands believe she is on the fast track to self-combustion.

Tall and graceful with a streak of durability, Nicole’s routine is highlighted by a back tuck swing down, or as those associated with the Mountaineers endearingly call it, a “splash down.” As the South Lyon, Mich., native flies down toward the beam, a collective breath is taken by the crowd – will she fall?

“People think I’m crashing, but I just keep going,” Nicole said with a slight smile. “It’s a unique skill. You don’t see a lot of gymnasts compete it. It has this ‘wow’ factor. I like to watch people’s reactions on the meet videos – it really does fake them out.”

While proud of her in-meet double-take, Nicole cannot help but see the parallel between that single skill and the up and down journey she has been on since early last fall.

On a particularly normal day – so normal, in fact, Nicole cannot even recall the exact date, week or month – the junior received a phone call from her father, Greg, after a preseason practice. While her father was hesitant, Nicole could sense he had something to say, and she was right. Nicole’s mother, Wendy, had just been diagnosed with invasive ductal carincoma – breast cancer.

“I wanted to be home with my family right away,” Nicole said of her immediate reaction. “School and practice held me here in Morgantown. I also knew my parents would not let me come home, so my support would have to come from a distance.”

While Nicole was quick to offer her support from afar for her parents and younger brother, Dan, she was not in a rush to share her family’s current situation with her teammates.

“It took me some time to tell my team because I don’t like to have others see me down; that’s not who I am,” Nicole offered. “I also didn’t want them to feel badly for me.”

“She tried to handle it on her own at first,” said coach Linda Burdette-Good. “Once the team was aware of the situation, the girls really rallied around Nicole. I told her the best support she could give her mother was to be successful here, which is to be a good student-athlete and a good team member. I reminded her that she needed to try to go on with her life here because everything else was out of her hands.”

A contributor on the Mountaineers’ bars lineup since her second career meet, Nicole has been a solid point earner throughout her first two seasons at WVU. After earning first team all-East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL) bars honors in 2009, she added beam to her repertoire in 2010 and repeated on the bars honor list as a sophomore.

Therefore, when faced with adversity at the preset of her junior season, it was not surprising that she found solace in Cary Gym.

“Gymnastics gets my mind off things,” Nicole explained. “It lets me release some of the anger I have. I’m not going to lie – I feel angry about everything that has happened. Gymnastics lets me get my feelings off my chest. I don’t really think about anything for those few hours each day when I’m in the gym with my team.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an aggressive type, but I feel like this sport is my outlet right now, so I’m just putting everything I have into gymnastics.”

Nicole’s conviction has been readily present throughout the first eight meets this season. The most consistent Mountaineer bars worker, she scored 9.775 or better in four meets, including two season-high scores of 9.8. She ranks No. 7 in the EAGL and No. 13 in the Southeast Region with a 9.755 regional qualifying score. Additionally, she has competed in all but one meet on beam, scoring a season-best 9.775 on Jan. 29, and also has exhibitioned on floor, an event she hopes to compete her senior season.

“I’m not saying I didn’t work hard the first two years, but I feel like now, I want to prove something to everyone,” she said. “Nothing is going to knock me down. I can handle whatever is thrown my way.”

Wendy is not surprised by Nicole’s strong will.

“Going to the gym allows Nicole to focus on her gymnastics skills and keeps her mind off of her concerns about my condition,” she said. “It also lets her take out her frustrations. Her love of gymnastics has always seemed to provide a sanctuary because the gym is a place where she feels comfortable.”

No matter how resilient Nicole, an elementary education major, appears, Wendy knows that the support her daughter’s teammates have offered has been a blessing for the family.

“Nicole initially took the news of my condition very hard, but with the help of her gymnastics family she has been able to deal with our struggles and remain positive as I began my treatment,” she said. “Having Nicole do so well has made it much easier on our family because we know that she is strong enough to get through this even though we are not together.

“Many in her gymnastics family have been wearing breast cancer awareness bracelets to show their support. This means so much to me to have such a caring group of people supporting my daughter when I’m not near.”

The No. 24-ranked Mountaineers’ support will be on full display tonight, as they play host to reigning EAGL champion North Carolina in their annual “Pink Meet,” at 7 p.m., at the WVU Coliseum. The team will don its pink uniforms in support of breast cancer awareness, and fans also are encouraged to wear pink as a show of unity.

“I always appreciated the meet because I was aware that there were others out there dealing with the disease,” Nicole said. “I just feel different about it this year because of what is going on with my mom. It doesn’t make me sad, but it makes me realize that there are other people going through this and there are a lot of people out there to support you and your family, even if it just by attending a gymnastics meet.”

“I’ve heard the team talking about this Pink Meet, and the reality and the importance of the awareness is very present and I think that’s a good thing,” Burdette-Good echoed.

While Wendy has attended several of Nicole’s meets this season, including the Feb. 12 trip at Ohio State, she says she is truly looking forward to Saturday’s meet.

“I’m very thankful that the coaching staff, athletic department and the University understand how devastating this disease can be and acknowledge it throughout the year,” she said. “This is truly a great cause. Hopefully, the more that women are reminded to do their self-exams, more cases will be caught early and the need for severe treatment can be avoided. I also hope that meets like this spur people to make whatever donation they can to the essential research that is necessary to wipe out this disease once and for all.”

Above all else, Wendy cannot stress enough the importance of monthly self-exams.

“You must report any abnormality to your doctor,” she instructed. “Even though I had yearly mammograms, my disease developed and spread in the time between (appointments). My treatment so far has been chemotherapy, which has resulted in the tumors shrinking to the point where they are hard to detect. I will still have to have surgery and radiation.

“When I was first diagnosed, I was told that this was going to be a year-long process. This will probably be one of the longest years of my life.”

The year, though sprinkled with highlights, also has been long for Nicole, and while she believes the Mountaineers have the fight and determination to battle for a spot in the 2011 NCAA Championships, she is preparing for the months following the season’s end.

“I know there are more battles ahead,” she conceded. “I just want to take everything one day at a time and see where it goes.”

Just like the beam skill that always throws the fans for a loop, Nicole walks a thin line between holding on and falling apart. Yet, she is thankful for her many blessings and for her families, both in Michigan and Morgantown. She knows that she, her mom and her family will rise again.

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