By Anthony Mitchell
For The Daily item
SELINSGROVE -- A characteristic that separates simply a good athlete from a great one is the ability to perform under pressure.
For 17-year-old Kelly McLaughlin of Selinsgrove, that moment came at this year's Region 7 Girls Gymnastics Championships held at Ursinus College in Collegeville.
The top six combined scores in the four disciplines -- floor exercise, balance beam, vault and uneven bars -- advance to the Eastern National Championships, and McLaughlin stood in sixth place after three events. McLaughlin stepped up to the vault for her run with a return trip to the national championships hanging in the balance.
McLaughlin executed her run and had to wait for her score to be posted, unsure if she had scored high enough to keep her in the top six. When a 9.500 flashed, McLaughlin knew she had qualified for the national championships.
"The emotion I felt after my score was flashed was indescribable," McLaughlin said. "The only thing I remember is receiving the biggest hugs and high-fives from my coaches and other gymnasts in my rotation saying, 'You did it!'"
After struggling with her vaults throughout the year, McLaughlin landed the most important run of the season to cement her place in Battle Creek, Mich., on May 1-5 for the National Championships.
"It was not only the toughest competition of my life, but it was the best competition of my life," McLaughlin said.
Judging by her overall score in the four events, the Region 7 Championship truly was the best competition of her life, as McLaughlin scored a career-high 36.975 to finish in third place overall. McLaughlin scored an 8.750 on the uneven bars, a 9.425 on the balance beam and a 9.300 on floor exercise.
Although it is not her favorite event -- McLaughlin stated she prefers the balance beam -- the vault is an event where she has found success in the past. At the 2012 Pennsylvania State Gymnastics Championships, McLaughlin captured a state title in the vault with a score of 9.575.
"I didn't really expect (a title) at all," McLaughlin said. "I was like 'that's different.' "
McLaughlin recalled the whirlwind moments after winning a state title and having her hard work pay off.
"I had no idea what was going on (after taking first)," McLaughlin said. "The entire day felt like a blur. I realized that everything was coming together at the right moment."
McLaughlin qualified for the National Championships last year but was unable to grab any titles. She said that qualifying last year will help her appreciate the national championships and allow her to stay focused both in and out of the gym.
"I feel like I kind of rushed the whole weekend (last year)," McLaughlin said. "I feel like I took a lot of good opportunities to place for granted and then those opportunities were gone."
Regardless of how she places in Michigan, McLaughlin said she will have support from her teammates.
"We've become pretty much like family," she said.
The close-knit relationship she has with her teammates has allowed McLaughlin to consider competing in college and following in the footsteps of some of her teammates who compete at the collegiate level. McLaughlin said she values the sacrifices and hard work that her teammates have invested in gymnastics to reach the collegiate level.
Like her teammates, McLaughlin has had to make hard decisions to excel in her sport. She travels to Harrisburg five days a week to train with Artistic Sports Academy Plus and mentioned that she is forgoing the chance to attend her high school prom to compete at the National Championships.
McLaughlin has been competing since she was 10 and advises gymnasts getting their start in the sport to keep the sport in perspective.
"(Remember) to have fun with it and have no regrets," McLaughlin said. "The important stuff is more than placing and winning."