WOODBRIDGE — When Megan Sullivan was 4 years old, she thought she might grow up to be a ballerina.
It is a common dream shared by many girls that age, but for Sullivan nothing else matched ballet’s beauty — or the opportunity it gave her to wear ribbons in her hair and dress up in pretty clothes.
“All my friends were in ballet and I remember really enjoying it,” she said.
For a time, dancing was Sullivan’s favorite thing to do. More than a decade later, it remains her fondest scrapbook memory of when her family lived in Okinawa, Japan.
It is a memory, however, rather than a dream come true. The ballerina grew up to be someone completely different.
Instead of dancing on center stage, Sullivan, now a Gar-Field High School junior, became a championship gymnast — one who happily still gets to dress in sparkly clothes and wear ribbons in her hair.
“She’s such a gorgeous gymnast,” said Gar-Field teammate Tracy Cloninger. “You can tell she was once a dancer, especially on floor and beam. Everything about her is so pretty and graceful.”
The dancer in Sullivan was instantly drawn to the beauty of gymnastics the first time she saw it. Inspired by American Shannon Miller’s medal-winning performances at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, she begged her mother to enroll her in a class. She has been a choreographer’s dream ever since.
“I watched the Olympics and I was so amazed. It looked like so much fun. I told my mom she had to put me in it,” Sullivan said. “I was so excited I went out on the front lawn and taught myself a front handspring.”
Within a week, Sullivan was also learning how to do a forward roll on the floor exercise mat. Much to her good fortune, Featherstone Gymnastics Center was holding an open house in conjunction with the Olympic Games. She signed up for a class and it wasn’t long before she competed in her first Level 2 meet.
“I loved coming to the gym,” Sullivan said.
Even with a broken arm.
“I was playing around with my friends the summer before fourth grade and I had my hands wrong on a back handspring,” she recalled. “My arm went ‘crack’ but I was in the gym the next day. My mom put a little sticker on [the cast] to make it look pretty.”
Born in Okinawa while her Air Force pilot father, John, was stationed in Japan, Sullivan had just settled in Prince William County during the summer of 1992. She was getting ready to enter third grade and the Soviet team, led by all-around champion Tatiana Gutsu, won the Olympic gold medal.
Sullivan sat mesmerized in front of the television completely unaware that in five years she would understand exactly how to felt to stand on top of the award’s podium.
At the peak of her club career — one that would span seven years, including three as a Level 8 performer — Sullivan was part of one of the best Featherstone teams ever assembled.
It was a small squad by club standards with only four gymnasts, but together they formed the best Level 7 team in the state.
“That was a good team,” Sullivan said. “We were really close. It was only for one year, but we saw each other every day. We had sleepovers and everything.”
That team is immortalized in a photograph that hangs on a wall in the gym lobby. Sullivan is standing in the front row. To her right is Cloninger, a longtime friend who has witnessed and paralleled Sullivan’s ascension from club medalist to high school champion.
“We were all pretty equal, but Megan was the best one on the team. I remember when she came in she learned stuff so fast,” Cloninger said, “Her skills came so naturally to her. She’s a very natural gymnast.”
One day soon, another group photo featuring Cloninger and Sullivan may appear on a wall at Featherstone. The five smiling faces in that color print will be members of the Cardinal District champion Gar-Field gymnastics team another small squad that shared a gold medal moment Saturday afternoon.
Behind meet-record performances from Cloninger on the balance beam (9.6) and junior Ashley Lienau on floor exercise (9.65), a regional-qualifying all-around effort from senior Tricia Smith and a career-best afternoon from Sullivan, the Indians ended Woodbridge’s three-year reign as district champions by stunning the Vikings 141.25-140.325.
“I was definitely nervous that meet. It was for so much,” said Sullivan. “We did so well. I’d say it’s amazing.”
Any anxiety Sullivan felt wasn’t apparent once the meet began. Comforted by the presence of her trusty stuffed frog, Boonie — “I called him that before I knew what the word boonie meant, but I kept the name,” she said. — Sullivan finished third on the floor exercise (9.25) and fifth in the all-around with a personal-high 35.7 score.
In addition to helping Gar-Field win its first district title since 1998, Sullivan also qualified for the Northwest Region Meet in all four events. That effort affirmed her decision to stick with gymnastics after retiring from club competition four years ago.
“I stopped going to club because I got burned out and earlier in the season I was afraid of getting burned out again,” she said. “But then the team started doing well and every day I wanted to come to practice because I wanted to get better to help the team.”
As if defending a district title isn’t motivation enough, Sullivan has another reason to keep working hard. Next winter, her little sister, Kelly, will make her varsity debut at Gar-Field.
“Being on the same team will be a good experience. It will be fun to be together,” Sullivan said. “Being sisters, of course we fight. We’re a lot different. Her personality is different than mine, but the stuff we do is the same and we look a lot alike.”
If the two siblings are even remotely similar in gymnastics talent, the Indians’ moment in the spotlight could last much longer than one season.
“I’m so proud of the girls on this team. I work as hard as I can because I have something to work for,” said Sullivan, who recently added a combination back handspring-back tuck dismount to her balance beam routine and is currently developing a 1 1/2 twist vault.
“I have to work for my team,” she said. “It’s not for me. It’s for my team.”