Tears, a promise and a picture propel Haylee Young to National Championship

Before each practice, Haylee Young, a junior, glances at photos of eight of her predecessors as motivation. Young hopes to be the next All-American gymnast in the Iowa State gymnastics program history. 

Austin Anderson

It was 5:20 a.m. in Marietta, Georgia, and 10-year-old Haylee Young wasn’t in bed.

The sky was pitch black, and the sun still had more than an hour before coming out for the day, but Young started hers 20 minutes ago. She sat in the kitchen eating breakfast with a few minutes to finish before she hopped in the car with her mom, Fran, like she did every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next three years.

A 25-minute drive to Kennesaw, Georgia, was in front of them, and one thing was for sure: she could not be late.

She feared of being late the same way she feared of her coaches at the Gymnastics Academy of Atlanta (GAA), the place she was headed. As soon as she gets to GAA, she will stretch. An hour of conditioning ensues. 

She kept herself together thus far, mostly because the morning was so frantic and she hadn’t had time to think about what she was about to go through. But now, with the nervous anticipation of 6 a.m. gymnastics practice looming, Young did what she did every early morning before practice. She cried her eyes out.

The tears

Young walked into GAA and began her three-hour practice, the shorter of her two practices for the day, with stretching. Her tears had dried, due in part to seeing her best friend, Marielle Mitchell.

The two were basically inseparable at this point. They even had sleepovers on weeknights to make carpooling to practice easier, and perhaps give at least one set of parents a chance to sleep past 5 a.m.

After the hour of hard conditioning, Young and Mitchell were nauseous, but if they rested, they knew they would be scolded by their coaches. The elite coaches demanded perfection. Walking wasn’t allowed from one drill to the next, neither was standing still for more than three seconds while waiting for a routine to begin.

Routine after routine filled the next two hours of practice but one gymnast stood out. Gymnasts aged 13 to 14 years old were doing double backs on floor, full-ins and releases on bars, and aerials on the balance beam on one side of the gym. Young, at 10, was doing them on the other side.

“She was amazing,” Mitchell said. “You could see her talent from a young age.”

After practice ended at 9 a.m., Young and Mitchell headed back to Marietta, where they were homeschooled for a few hours. Then the process started over for practice again at 3 p.m. This time, however, it would go an extra hour longer than the first practice of the day, ending at 7 p.m.

The two practices last seven hours total, plus at least four hours of home schooling.

“That broke me,” Young said. “It was so hard.”

It was undoubtedly hard physically and mentally. But the hardest thing emotionally came when Young was 14. Her dad came home one day with news.

Young’s family was moving to Des Moines. Tears, again, rushed down her face.

Young was born in North Carolina and lived in Maine and Alabama but had lived in Georgia since she was 4. Atlanta was home.

“I had never heard of Des Moines,” Young said.

Her parents told her Chow’s Gymnastics, where Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson had trained, was in Des Moines, and it would be a great opportunity.

Young walked into Chow’s on her first day of practice and her jaw dropped. Johnson was in there training right alongside Young’s fellow level 10 gymnasts. She was intimidated at first. Johnson had been her favorite gymnast growing up and now she was sharing a gym with her, getting the same coaching.

Over the course of the next year, Young watched Johnson closely. She saw the way she finished her skills. She saw the sharpness and power Johnson possessed and tried to adapt it as much as she could.

“I wanted to be just like her,” Young said.

Johnson and Young developed a friendship over time. Johnson went to Young’s high school graduation party and Young said she can text Johnson about anything.

It was the same situation when fellow Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas lived with Young and her family for five months when Douglas moved to Des Moines to train at Chow’s.

Douglas was a friend, but Young watched her and admired her abilities.

But it wasn’t always a great experience at Chow’s for Young.

As soon as she heard about her future home for training, she was intimidated.

On the first day of practice, Young went through harder conditioning than she had ever experienced. One minute was a long time to do a handstand against a wall as far as Young was concerned. So when one minute approached for the gymnast at Chow’s to maintain their handstand, Young’s arms started to shake.

She didn’t know how much longer they would be up there but she knew she wasn’t going to make it much longer. Seconds passed and her shaking arms gave out and she tumbled to the floor.

“I think it was a five-minute handstand but that was normal for them,” Young said. “I have never been so sore in my life.”

Gymnastics took front and center in Young’s life. When she was in class, she was watching gymnastics videos or thinking about getting past a mental block that gymnasts are known to go through.

She never went to a prom because she always had competitions during prom weekend. Parties weren’t an option because she always had to be up early the next morning to practice or go to meets.

She sacrificed a lot for the sport and at times wondered if it was all even worth it.

She got close to quitting once.

She decided to take a week off and see how she felt. She was back as soon as the week was over.

“To be able to sustain that and still have a passion for the sport and still want to be better every day, that’s the rarity,” Iowa State coach Jay Ronayne said.

The promise

Ronayne made a promise when he was recruiting Young.

He told her and her family if she came to Iowa State, she would go to the national championship and she would be able to do it close to home.

“That was the promise from the beginning,” Ronayne said. “You’re going to go to the national championship as a Cyclone.”

Two years passed and Ronayne’s promise hadn’t proven true but he wasn’t nervous. She had come within a 10th of a point of qualifying in both her freshman and sophomore seasons.

When regionals rolled around this season in Lincoln on April 1, the Cyclones felt they had a shot to qualify as a team for the national championship.

Two falls off the balance beam on the first routines of the day ended that chance early, but it didn’t end Young’s chances to qualify as an individual.

Associate head coach Katie Minasola approached Young before her routine on the balance beam like she had all season. The two falls were in the back of Minasola’s mind but she remained calm.

“Was I mad and upset we had two falls?” Minasola said. “Yes, but I better not show that because it affects the rest of the team.”

Minasola went up to Young and said the same four words she has said every meet before Young’s routine on the balance beam.

“Do you. Have fun.”

Young said she is basically always having fun. The two most common words to describe Young are “goofy” and “sociable.”

“She’s an open book,” Ronayne said. “Anyone who’s ever come in contact with her probably knows everything about her.”

Her attitude didn’t change. She completed all four events, but she wasn’t flawless.

She can’t even remember the last time she had as low of a score as 9.700 on vault. Her floor routine received a 9.900, not her career high, despite it being “the best floor routine” of her life. When she got a 9.775 on bars, she didn’t know if her score was going to be good enough.

Her total all-around score was a 39.175, the second lowest of her entire season.

But she knew the work she had put in this season was worthy of a bid to the national championship. She had completed one of the best regular seasons in Cyclone history.

Earlier this season, at Alabama, in front of the biggest crowd of the season, Young scored her career-high all-around score, the highest all-around score since All-American Janet Anson in 2007.

Her coaches had calculated the scores and told her if Nebraska qualified for the National Championship as a team, she was going to advance to nationals. A 9.950 clinched the birth for Nebraska but Young still didn’t get her hopes up.

Then it was officially announced.

Relief rushed through her body.

The promise was kept.

“I look back on it now and I feel quite blessed she chose Iowa State,” Ronayne said.

The picture

Young looks at the same picture every day before practice.

It’s a picture former Iowa State All-American Caitlin Brown took when she competed at the national championship her junior year. Brown, like Young, was at the national championship as an individual and she could feel the absence of her teammates.

Ronayne said Brown walked around that first year unsure of herself, like she didn’t know if she truly deserved to be there, competing with the best college gymnasts in the country.

Brown had a solid performance her junior year, but it wasn’t good enough to finish in the top 16 in any event and become an All-American.

That’s when Brown snapped the picture. It was of confetti falling over a podium with All-American gymnasts standing on them at the national championship.

Brown placed it in her locker to use as motivation for next season. To see where she wanted to be one year later.

It worked. Brown became a two-time All-American the next year.

Young was a freshman on the team that saw Brown become an All-American and was within a 10th of a point to qualifying for the national championship herself.

Brown passed the picture down to try and pass the magic and motivation that came with it.

Ronayne pulled Young aside after practice last week and let her know she doesn’t have to wait a year to be an All-American, like Brown did. She deserves to be competing with the best in the country.

“I think she knows her talents,” Ronayne said. “Some athletes don’t. They think it was just luck. I don’t think she ever feels like that.”

Young looked up to Brown as a freshman and anytime she’s in the Iowa State gymnastics facility at Beyer Hall, all she has to do is look up — literally — to see Brown again.

Her picture is enshrined on the wall as one of Iowa State’s eight All-Americans in program history.

To the left of Brown, Iowa State’s history is shown on a yellow board. The No. 24 sits at the top of the board in red letters, reflecting the number of All-American titles Iowa State has won.

24 is Young’s favorite number. She copied it from her dad’s high school football uniform and wore it during her own athletic career, like when she hit a home run playing baseball as a 5-year-old in Atlanta.

It remains to be seen at the end of Friday, when Young competes in the all-around competition at the national championship in St. Louis, whether the No. 24 will still be at the top of the board when Young returns to Beyer Hall.

“She has the potential to be an All-American,” Ronayne said.

The one thing that does seem certain, however, is if Young cries on her way to Chaifetz Arena on Friday morning, they will be the good kind of tears, tears of happiness.