05 January 2016
U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases Public Affairs Officer Caree Vander Linden stands with daughter Sydney, 12, as she prepares to compete at the Breda Open Acro Cup in The Netherlands Nov. 28-29. Photo courtesy of Caree Vander Linden, USAMRIID Public Affairs
My Daughter, My Hero: Unique Sport Teaches Life Lessons
By Caree Vander Linden, USAMRIID Public Affairs
Three local gymnasts recently returned from The Netherlands, where they spent Thanksgiving break competing in the Breda Open Acro Cup Nov. 28-29. My daughter, Sydney, was one of them. Despite worldwide concerns about travel, and my family’s worries about our flight into Brussels, we made the trip—and I’m so glad that we did. Not only did the girls come home with three medals, they had an amazing experience they will remember for a lifetime.

Sydney, 12, has been an acrobatic gymnast for the past five years. Before I explain what “acro” is, I’ll tell you what it’s not. It is not the combination of balance beam/bars/vault/floor exercise that we’ve all watched with awe during the Summer Olympics. In fact, Acro is not even an Olympic sport—yet—but it should be.

Acro is “a spectacular sport that combines the athletic prowess of tumbling and artistic gymnastics with the grace, artistry and presentation of dance,” according to the USA Gymnastics website. Athletes compete in pairs, trios or fours. Women's groups are composed of a base, a middle and a top partner. In Sydney’s case, she started out as the top in a Level 6 Women’s Pair and is now the top in a Junior Elite Women’s Group, one of the highest levels in the sport.

Elite athletes perform three routines: Balance features skills that highlight strength and flexibility; Dynamic includes daring throws, pitches and catches, with high-flying tumbling; and Combined uses both Balance and Dynamic elements in a powerful demonstration of the athletes' skill and grace.

For Sydney and her partners—Helena Hall, 17, and Lindsay Maier, 16—the road to Breda was paved with hard work and long hours of training at Skyview Gymnastics in Mount Airy, Maryland. The trio has been together for four years, starting at Level 8 and steadily moving up. They’ve competed internationally twice before, once in Germany in 2013 and once in Belgium in 2014. Last season, the group was plagued by injuries and self-doubt until their coach, LeeAnn Lenhart, helped them to work through it. This year—their last one as a trio—they seem more determined than ever to leave their mark on the sport.

In Breda, Helena’s mom, Laura, and I watched as the girls performed their Balance routine first. It was good, although we could tell they were a little nervous, and that was reflected in the scores. But we’d seen them perform under pressure many times before. Sure enough, the next day they came out and wowed the crowd with their Dynamic routine; winning the silver medal. About two hours later, their Combined routine earned them a bronze medal. When all the scores were totaled, the trio placed third overall; winning another bronze medal for their efforts.

It was a thrill to see them compete on an international stage and it was a lot of fun to have the support from home—the competition was live-streamed, so many of their teammates and friends were watching and sending messages of encouragement throughout the weekend. I was also touched by the way all the athletes supported each other. Some trios on the U.S. delegation were competing against Sydney’s group, but you could hear them cheering when our girls took the floor.

We left Breda for a day of sightseeing before returning to the U.S. Despite their success at the competition, Laura and I were proud to hear the girls say that visiting Amsterdam (and touring the Anne Frank House) was the best part of the trip.

Later this month, the trio will compete for a spot on the U.S. team that will travel to the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships, slated for March 2016 in the Eastern Chinese city of Putian. It might be a long shot, but with these girls, you never know.

Regardless of what happens this year, I am so proud of all of them and thankful for the life lessons that Sydney has learned from this demanding and beautiful sport. She is an excellent student who juggles schoolwork with 18 hours of training each week. No matter how difficult a practice is, she picks herself up and tries even harder the next day. She has learned humility from her mistakes and gained confidence from her successes.

Sure, medals are nice, but all the trips she has taken and all the wonderful people she has met add up to a priceless experience that Sydney—and I—will never forget.

You can view the trio’s routines from Breda at the following links:
Dynamic routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx5_P1QxLzM
Combined routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BT-YuHVc6Y
Balance routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-1PnMKe54A
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