CAMDEN — Arcade machines, couches, kitchen counters — no place in her home is sacred or off-limits to 8-year-old Tessa Marie Forehand.
That’s why her mother, Kim Forehand, enrolled her in the Ocean Tumblers Gymnastics School in Chesapeake, Va., a 50-minute one-way drive across state lines that they make three times per week now and will do four times per week when she moves up from Level 4 to Level 5 in the fall.
But Tessa, a second-grader at Grandy Primary School, still jumps off of furniture, springs off a trampoline and practices balance beam by doing routines on duct tape in her living room.
“My mom always said that I was flipping, and I was getting too dangerous,” Tessa said. “I used to flip off of the couch. She was afraid I was going to hurt myself, so she put me into gymnastics to learn how to do it right.”
And in just her first year competing against other teams, Tessa already has a pool table full of medals and awards to denote her progress in the sport — her latest accomplishment a silver medal in vault at the Level 4 USAG Virginia State Meet in Danville, Va.
Tessa finished with a score of 9.55, her best in that event, and the same score as the winner, but lost out on first place because of a lower all-around score.
Still, her performance helped her team take first place for the 12th consecutive year.
“It felt really good because that’s one of the biggest meets that you’ll ever have,” Tessa said.
While mom and daughter would both prefer not to drive so far for so long, without an established gymnastics program in the area — mom touts the benefits of an EZ Pass that saves them seven minutes each way — they continue to make the treks north.
Counting the drive and practice, it takes up at least five hours per day. For Tessa, the rides to and from the gym are routine, but she brings an iPad to pass time. Once there, her coach, Kim Volkman, is hard on her and the other members of the team, but the results are worth it.
“She gets it straight to the point,” Tessa said. “You know what she’s mad about when she’s mad at you. Like, say you had a bent leg, she’ll say, ‘You had a bent leg on your back handspring. She’ll add all these little details.”
At competitions, Tessa gets anxious before starting a routine, but relaxes once she begins.
“Well, I mean at first, you’re kind of nervous,” Tessa said, “but then once you’re into it, you’re like, ‘This is a piece of cake. You can do this. You’re not going to have any worries.”
Though she got her highest score on vault, Tessa prefers the floor exercise best, as it allows her to be more creative.
“It’s a lot easier (for me),” Tessa said. “You get to do backflips. It’s a lot easier than you would think, or harder, depending on what you do on it. It has that springy feel. It’s more dance than any other event. ... You get to do a lot of tumbling, and that’s one of my favorites.”
The kip move, which a gymnast uses to swing below the bar to get to a front support on the bar on the uneven bars, has been the most difficult for Tessa to master.
But even as Tessa’s mother wishes for a shorter drive, and for less abuse on the furniture and countertops, the joy on her daughter’s face after a routine makes the effort worth it.
“It’s just amazing how you see her on the podium after a meet,” Kim Forehand said. “She works herself up, and then when she’s doing it, she’s totally focused, and then when she gets to stand on that podium, and when she’s standing on that top, the smile that comes across her face, and her arms are as straight as could be. She makes sure she shakes the hand of the person to her left, and the one that’s to the right of her.
“It’s a very proud moment. It makes you say, ‘OK, you know what? I don’t mind driving three days a week. I don’t mind.’”