Magic in the kingdom

Monday, June 27, 2005

Amber Scheman recently had the opportunity to spend a few days at Walt Disney World with her family and friends.

Throw in a national gymnastics championship, and that's not a bad vacation for an 8-year-old.

Scheman topped off her trip with the Level 4 bars title in the 8-year-old division at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Age Group Gymnastics National Championships.

The event took place June 8 to 12 at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.

Scheman and 9-year-old Makenda Lukefahr, both members of Shooting Starz Gymnastics in Perryville, claimed top-five finishes at the national meet. Lukefahr placed fourth all-around in the Level 4 9-year-old division.

According to Laurie Bachmann, director of Shooting Starz and one of the girls' three coaches, the achievements were well-deserved, yet shocking.

"You just don't walk into nationals expecting something like that," she said. "We told them just to aim at getting a medal because to walk away with anything at all in any event is pretty special.

"We knew that they were going to do OK, but to us OK would be about halfway there. Never in our dreams would we expect what we got."

Scheman beat out about 30 girls to win the title in the bars event, while Lukefahr earned her fourth-place spot by excelling in all four events -- bars, beam, floor and vault.

"I was really surprised because there was 27 girls in the all-around," Lukefahr said of her finish. "I worked really hard with my coaches every day to win these medals."

Of course, she couldn't forget about Disney World.

"And it was really fun when I went on Splash Mountain," she added, referring to the multi-drop flume ride. "Winning was better, but Splash Mountain was pretty fun."

Shooting Starz won the Missouri Ozark AAU championship as a team on April 30, but the national meet the club attended was strictly for individual performances.

That wasn't a problem for the young group of girls; Shooting Starz qualified 19 individuals for the championships in Orlando, which was host to a record 2,000 gymnasts this year from California to Connecticut. Gymnasts can qualify for the state competition by participating in two AAU meets during the year, and those in the top 10 of each event at the state contest move on to the national meet.

Aside from the two top-five finishes in Orlando for Shooting Starz, both Lukefahr and 9-year-old Mollie Bachmann, competing in Level 4, earned medals in every event by placing in the top half of each one.

"We know they've competed very well in the state of Missouri," Laurie Bachmann said, "but the success we had at nationals was pretty exciting. They had no indication that they would do as well as they did."

Scheman is the first girl from Shooting Starz to win a national title, and Bachmann thinks that she may actually be the only one out of Missouri to win a particular event. Last year in the national contest, the best individual finish for the Shooting Starz was fifth place.

"That's kind of where we were this year," Bachmann said of last year's finish, "or so we thought.

"We've had other girls score very, very well, but we've never had a girl win. To come back with someone in first place was certainly unexpected."

Bachmann added that the desire and energy of Scheman and Lukefahr, who both took first place several times throughout the year in state-wide meets, played a major role in their success.

"They are very strong and they can't stay off the floor," she said. "They can't walk from one end of the floor to the other without doing some kind of flip. Their parents tell me that it doesn't stop at the gym; they can't stand still at home, either.

"It's something within them. They love the sport, and they are both very happy little girls with very natural talent."

Scheman said she struggled through her first three events, but bounced back in time to win the bars event.

"On the floor, beam and vault, I fell on everything," she said, "so on bars I just tried my hardest to get first place, and I got first place."

Gymnasts can compete on Levels 2 through 6 at the national competition, with 6 representing the most talent. Bachmann said Scheman and Lukefahr will, by the coaches' decision, move to Level 5 for next season.

"I think they're both going to be successful at Level 5," Bachmann said. "Amber will be great on the bars, and Makenda will always be a great all-around gymnast."

Both girls said they plan on making not only another gymnastic vacation to Disney World next year, but also a trip to the Olympics some day.

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