By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa - One of the unique aspects of NCAA gymnastics is the team component, something most gymnasts aren't used to when they first arrive on campus. While they eventually learn to adapt to a more team-first approach, individual performance nonetheless finds itself at the forefront of several athletes' minds.
For one weekend, four Penn State gymnasts will have a chance to relive their junior days of old competition. The Winter Cup in Las Vegas, Nevada gives these gymnasts an opportunity to take a step back and approach their meet from a more personal angle, something they may not be able to do during team competition. Some of the gymnasts view this as a blessing, as they can go back and make some tweaks to their usually consistent routines.
"This competition is unattached to the team," senior Leroy Clarke said. "I can get a chance to try new things, maybe add a new skill here or there. It's not something that would affect the team, more so just me. I can also try different psychological things. I'm always thinking about different ways in which I can personally improve my performance, and this is a perfect competition where I can go ahead and experiment."
Clarke and sophomore Michael Burns will both be making their second appearance at Winter Cup, and things are sure to be more familiar this time around.
"I'm more excited now that I know what's to be expected of me out there," Clarke said. "I know the environment is very different. It kind of brings me back to the days back in high school where everything was more individualized. I have a sense of how the travel and accommodations are going to be and I'm probably going to be jet-lagged for some time, but I'm excited because I have a better sense of how to prepare myself."
Clarke competed in three events at the Winter Cup last year, while Burns competed on five.
For Dominic DiFulvio and Favian Valdez, this year will mark their first appearance in blue and white at the Winter Cup. Valdez was invited last year as a Junior Olympian while he was still in high school, but wasn't able to compete due to a hand injury.
Winter Cup also gives these guys a chance to be around some of the best in the business, as this event brings U.S. Olympians, top college performers, as well as the top juniors all to the same stage.
There can certainly be pressure in that sort of situation, but it's also an opportunity for these gymnasts to showcase themselves around the highest level of competition.
"It's great to see them in person and compete with them," Valdez said. "They're at a really high level, and I'm not there yet, but they encourage me to get better and get to that level. It's definitely a chance to get my name out there and show that I can do well with big guys."
"I've gone to two competitions like this, and to be alongside them feels truly amazing," Clarke said. "It also keeps me grounded in a way and it really empowers me to keep pushing forward. It's definitely a great experience having them there and getting to know them too."