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By Anita Nham, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- "When I was younger, I had no interest in gymnastics."
Freshman Mikayla Waddell started practicing gymnastics when she was five years old. Her parents, Tom and Lori Waddell, owned a gymnastics facility in South Jersey, so she grew up working on the sport of gymnastics at an early age.
However, she was not fond of it. It wasn't until she started watching the other gymnasts perform their routines did she start to see how exciting gymnastics was.
"I was watching the older girls, and I was like, "That's so cool to watch all the flips and stuff. I want to do that because flips are cool," Waddell said. "As a six-year-old, I thought it was so cool that the girls were flying and flipping on things."
Her passion for gymnastics grew throughout her childhood. When Waddell was in high school, she started showing what she was capable of doing in the gym as she trained at ENA Paramus under coaches Craig and Jen Zappa. In 2013, she captured the balance beam title at the level 10 regional meet and received a bronze medal in the all-around with a score of 37.15.
She didn't stop there. In the 2014 level 10 regional, she was the all-around, balance beam and vault champion. Waddell finished up the season at the 2014 Junior Olympic National meet, placing fourth on the beam and seventh on the vault.
"Mikayla has an uncanny ability on balance beam," head coach Jeff Thompson said. "She seems like she never wobbles. For her, it's like the balance beam is two feet wide instead of four inches wide. That's the first thing we noticed about her, and then her talent on vault and floor."
During her final year of high school, Waddell continued to show how dominant she was in gymnastics.
"She's incredibly powerful and she set herself apart from most of the other kids in her age group," coach Thompson said.
When it was time for Waddell to decide where she wanted to go for college, it wasn't a hard decision because she fell in love with Penn State right away.
"I took a tour of campus, watched a practice and just fell in love with how everybody is one big family," Waddell said. "Everyone has so much pride for Penn State. Everyone just loves being here and is so happy. On the tour, I could definitely see myself being here. You just feel it. You just know what it's the right place."
And she hasn't regretted her decision since becoming a Nittany Lion.
I thought it was going to be a lot harder to transition, but my teammates and coaches made it so easy," Waddell said. "Adjusting was pretty good and very positive, which was not what I was expecting."
It also helps to have someone you know on the team. Waddell and senior Nicole Medvitz used to practice at the same gym together in New Jersey, and that early connection helped with her move to Happy Valley.
"My freshman year of high school was Nicole's senior year, so I got a year with her, and that was really fun, especially once I took an interest in Penn State," Waddell said. "She always told me to go to Penn State, but I was like, `No. I'll never go there. They're too good," but watching her, she was always so good, would always win Nationals, always so confident and happy all the time. I was like, `That's what I want to do, that's how I want to be.' I looked up to her a lot. Then coming here, she helped me adjust to everything, get used to college and made the transition so much easier."
Last weekend, in the fourth meet of the season at Illinois, Waddell made her collegiate debut. She scored a 9.475 on vault and a 9.675 on balance beam.
"Last weekend, Tess (McCracken) competed for the first time on floor and hit," coach Thompson said. "Mikayla competed for the first time on vault and beam and hit. Kristen (Politz) hit all four events, so freshmen hit nine out of 10 routines. They got experience even though the score was low. Not having the experience, I thought they did well."
Waddell is excited to be at Rec Hall this weekend for the annual Pink Meet, and to perform some new routines.
"I'm expecting Rec Hall to be more fun than last weekend just because we're home and we have a bunch of fans there," Waddell said. "Heading into this week, I'm doing three events instead of just two, so I'm more excited and less nervous than I was last week because I get to do more this time."
The Ridgewood, N.J. native never thought she would be doing collegiate gymnastics when she was younger, but now, all she can focus on is her future.
"My goals for the rest of the semester are to stay healthy, stay happy, hit my routines in competition and get better each meet to help the team."