When one season comes down to 11 steps: Meaghan Sievers journey to the National Championship

Iowa State Gymnast Meaghan Sievers is headed to the NCAA national championship Friday, April 20. With one chance to put a score up, the pressure will be high as she competes to be one of college gymnastics top 16 female gymnasts, and become an All-American.

Austin Anderson

There are many steps en route to becoming an All-American gymnast. In the case of Iowa State junior Meaghan Sievers, there are 11.

Sievers is the lone qualifier for the NCAA National Championships from the Iowa State gymnastics team. On Friday night at around 7 p.m., she will stand in front of thousands of people in St. Louis at Chaifetz Arena, with 11 literal steps between her and potential All-American honors on the vault.

She’s been in this spot before, both in 2016, and in her mind.

Sievers was an individual qualifier on vault as a freshman in 2016, but more recently she has been here when she has visualized her routine throughout the last two weeks in preparation.

When she sees the routine play out in her head, she focuses on everything leading up to when she flies 10 feet in the air. Her speed and power are the driving force behind the start of her routine, but what makes her so successful is transferring that force off the springboard, onto the table and high into the air for her front hand spring into a front pike half.

In the words of her coach, Jay Ronayne, if she takes care of everything at the beginning, the end of her routine — you know the part where she flips twice in the air with a half turn — will come on its own.

Ronayne is talking about her routine in the national championship, but he might as well be using it as an analogy for the season as a whole.

The entirety of the 2018 season will culminate paradoxically in 11 steps. The hundreds of hours of practices, preparation and competing that Sievers has put into this season alone will come down to the final 10 seconds.

And it will begin with a sharp pain.

When she takes the first step to begin her vault routine, pain will shoot through her ankles. In fact, every step she will take on Friday night will induce pain.

It might come as a surprise that someone who avoids walking on grass because it’s too unsturdy on her surgically repaired ankles, would voluntarily slam them on the ground repeatedly for fun.

In practice, her ankles are wrapped in layers of black tape serving as an armor to keep the pain away as much as possible.

“They’re like plaster casts,” Ronayne said. “She has terrible ankles.”

It might come as even more of a surprise that someone who had surgery to repair torn ligaments in her ankles would beg her coaches to let her bang her ankles against the ground even more than she’s allowed to.

But if it comes as a surprise, you don’t know Meaghan Sievers.

During practice last week, Ronayne capped her vault routines at a maximum of 10 per practice. As her coach, it’s his job to give her the best opportunity to succeed, but also to keep her from doing damage to herself. Ten vault routines each day, Ronayne felt, would give Sievers enough practice to prepare for the NCAA Championships, but would also keep the physical pressure off of her less than perfectly healthy ankles.

When Sievers reached her limit, she pleaded with her coach to let her do more.

“I want to go in and know,” Sievers said. “I don’t want to leave a question of if I would have done two more vaults, could I have figured something out.”

Ronayne stood firm with his belief that 10 was enough. The practice ended with Sievers leaving the gym in tears.

“That’s kind of the way she is,” Ronayne said. “Over the years, she keeps on pushing herself as many times as possible until she feels she’s done the job.

“Sometimes it’s to a detriment. Perfectionists are like that. They beat themselves up very badly if they don’t do what they expect themselves to do.”

Later that week, Sievers tried her luck again to get just a few more routines before practice came to a close. Ronayne didn’t budge, and Sievers again left in tears.

“Sometimes it’s like ‘I’m going to have to get you into a headlock and drag you out of the gym,’” Ronayne said.

After practice on the Monday before the National Championships, she sat on the blue runway of the vault she has practiced on hundreds of times in her three years as a gymnast at Iowa State. She talked about how her parents instilled the importance of setting goals in her life from an early age.

“Everyone wants to be great,” she said. “If they say they don’t, I think they’re lying.”

Which makes sense, because the goal of Sievers is to be great, but not just in gymnastics. After she got done talking on the runway in the practice facility inside Beyer Hall on Monday night, she had less than 50 minutes to go home, get changed into formal attire and attend a banquet where Iowa State student athletes were recognized.

She then had to get home and study for a test on Tuesday that’s part of her pre-med major, on her way to a possible future career in pediatrics. On top of her test, she visited Kate Mitchell Elementary School in Ames to talk with kids about the importance of setting goals. She left for her second career appearance at nationals on Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.

Not bad for someone who committed to Iowa State as a walk-on.

“She works really hard and has a really good heart,” said junior Kelly Martin.

Sievers is from Gary, South Dakota. Well, kind of.

Her house is on a lake, seven miles away, but Gary is the closest town so that’s where her family’s address is. Gary’s population is 150. She graduated with 32 people in her class, and she seems to know everyone. Her sister is a freshman in high school and Sievers said she knows almost everyone in her sister’s grade. Her youngest brother is in third grade.

“I don’t know all of the kids in my youngest brother’s grade because I’ve been out of school for a few years now,” Sievers said. “But when I was there, [I] knew everyone.”

Recruiting in college gymnastics continues to begin earlier and earlier in high school. Sievers’ sister, for example, is committed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a high school freshman. When Sievers was a sophomore, she felt behind in the recruiting process. Her and her family made a difficult decision to switch gyms.

Starting her sophomore year of high school, Sievers would have to travel 100 miles each way for practice, six days a week. Monday through Friday, Sievers and her sister would leave school early at 2 p.m. and get home around 10 p.m. Saturday’s practice would take them away from home from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The change seemed to be effective.

Sievers’ assistant coach at her new gym competed with former Iowa State assistant Katie Minasola in college. Sievers inquired about any possible spots being open for camp with Iowa State, but they had all been filled.

Minasola came to visit Sievers at her home gym two weeks later. Another two weeks after that, the coaches asked Sievers to come visit Iowa State. Iowa State was looking for vaulters and that was Sievers’ specialty. Iowa State didn’t have any scholarships available for her freshman year, so Ronayne asked her to walk on for the first year and they would try to find a scholarship for her after that.

On the car ride home from her visit, Sievers called the Iowa State coaches and accepted the offer in August before her junior year of high school.

“We are the luckiest people on the face of the earth that she came into our lives,” Ronayne said.

Before her freshman year started though, Ronayne called Sievers and told her they had found a scholarship so she wouldn’t have to walk-on.

The only place she had ever lived had a population of 150 people, so when she got to Iowa State she was in awe of its size.

“I walked into my first chemistry lecture and there were more people in it than my entire school,” Sievers said.

It wouldn’t be long before she was in awe again. The next time came after she had qualified as an individual on vault for the NCAA championships during her freshman year. She competed alongside Florida, the two time defending national champions.

She had qualified with a score of 9.900 in the regional, good enough to tie for first place. Yet, she still wasn’t sure she belonged.

“While I was there, I was like ‘Holy cow, I’m here,’” Sievers said. “It was such a surreal experience. Everyone wants to go to Nationals but once you’re there, it left me even more hungry to want to go back.”

Her freshman year, she said, she felt lucky to be at the National Championships. But that’s not the case this season.

“This year, I feel like I’ve earned it,” Sievers said. “I’ve put in the work and the turns, so it wasn’t just pure dumb luck that I qualified and that I had a good vault at regionals.”

Before Sievers took off on the vault routine that qualified her for nationals, she knew what score was going to be necessary to qualify for nationals. The Cyclones last event was the vault, so she saw that a 9.900 or above would do the job.

She told herself that she needed the best vault routine of her life. At a regional that featured the two time defending national champions, Oklahoma and more, Sievers was the one who finished in first.

When she looks down the vault runway on Friday night, she might have to tell herself the same thing. If she finishes in the top 16, she’ll become an All-American.

“She has a shot at it,” Ronayne said. “A real shot.”

With all the possibilities at stake, the pain she endures in her ankles won’t be felt. Adrenaline will cover that up. If the night goes according to Sievers’ plan, the feeling of accomplishment will overcome it all.