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By Anita Nham, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - At 13 months old, freshman Tess McCracken's mother knew that her daughter needed to start gymnastics.
"My mom found me on top of the fridge, so she wanted me to do something with mats underneath me, and she put me into gymnastics," McCracken said.
At 11 years old, McCracken won the all-around, balance beam, and uneven bars titles at the Texas state meet.
At 14 years old, the Plato, Texas native secured the balance beam title, placed second on the uneven bars, and finished third in the all-around at the Texas state meet. She also placed eighth on the balance beam at Junior Olympic Nationals.
All of this was accomplished before her second year of high school.
"She's from [World Olympic Gymnastics Academy], one of the best gyms in the country," head coach Jeff Thompson said. "One of her teammates was on the Olympic team that just won gold and did quite well for herself."
While she was in high school, McCracken trained with Madison Kocian, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist. Though McCracken was already a Junior Olympic National Alternate in 2014 and a Junior Olympic National Qualifier in 2015, she knew that having Kocian around would motivate her to continue to improve.
"Having Olympians in the gym, it kind of gives you someone to look up to in a way that it shows you what you can be and it keep you from being, 'Oh, I'm the best,' and from settling back," McCracken said. "It always gives you more incentive to do more because if they're the same age as you, and they're doing that, then you have that potential, as well."
After high school, McCracken knew that she wanted to continue her career in gymnastics, but she also wanted to get a world-class education. With both of those in mind, she decided Penn State was the school for her.
"Tess was looking mostly for academics first then gymnastics," he added. "A lot of the top gymnasts are looking for 'which of the top 10 gymnast school can I go to?' and then what is the education like. But Tess, she was looking for a world-class education. Her bars and beam were, and still are, amazing, so the combination of her academics, her family's track record in the academic field and then her gymnastics ability is what really attracted us."
"Penn State made me feel more welcome than any other place that I had visited," McCracken said. "I love the campus and the team, and it's a great school, especially for engineering."
The gymnast would soon learn that being a student-athlete comes with a rigorous schedule, including countless hours spent practicing in the gym. Nonetheless, McCracken knew right away that she would have to make time for academics as well as athletics.
"I like math and science," McCracken said. "I'm good at it and I really like it because I've kind of always had a puzzle brain where I just like to figure stuff out, so I knew engineering was the best for that."
The 5'4 freshman was injured early last semester, so she has had a slow start to this season, but that has not stopped her from pushing to be the best that she can be.
"I feel like [my experience] will keep growing and it will probably get harder, especially with school, but in the gym, I definitely don't want to sit back and let me skills go stagnant," McCracken said. "I want to keep learning and I feel like the coaches are helping me with that. Also, the injury made me a little more driven because I saw the other girls getting their skills and hitting consistency, and that was when I was supposed to be hitting that, so since I've come back, I've been pushing hard to get up to where they are since I missed out on a month and a half."
Even with the setback, coach Thompson knows what McCracken is capable of accomplishing.
"I would love for her to come out and compete on bars and beams every single meet all four years," coach Thompson said. "I would love for her, as time goes on, to get into the floor lineup. She was out for quite a while in the fall, so she's behind everyone and we're not pushing her right now. We're thankful that she was able to compete floor at Illinois. But if she could get to the point where she is the main stay for us on those three events, that would be amazing."