Gold medal comeback


Ashley Lienau was sure she was being hoodwinked. That was the reason for the skeptical look on her face as she walked back up the runway to attempt another vault at Featherstone Gymnastics Center.

The Gar-Field junior was supposed to be practicing a full twist — a new skill she was hoping to debut at tonight’s Group AAA state meet. Somehow, though, she’d been talked into trying a Tsukahara, a much more difficult double flip vault that typically takes more than the three days she had to master it.

Her playful smile suggested that Lienau was suspicious about the whole thing but, being the consummate team player, she went along.

“This is a trick isn’t it?” Lienau asked as Indians coach Ray Roman promised to spot her first few attempts.

It wasn’t so much a trick as a testament to Lienau’s gymnastics ability that Roman wanted her to attempt a tuck Tsukahara. The Indians spent the entire week leading up to the state team competition searching for ways to improve their team score another four points.

They’d already made some technical alterations on the floor exercise and junior Megan Sullivan was working on a new flyaway dismount on the uneven bars. The original plan for Lienau was to add an extra half twist to her current vault, but she had too much speed and power to land it properly.

It was her strength that actually inspired the Tsukahara — an idea that began innocently enough with Lienau doing a standing back flip off the vault.

The notion was anything but far-fetched. It had taken Lienau only one practice session to learn a straddle back release move on the uneven bars. The Indians figured it was certainly possible for her to learn a Tsukahara in three days.

“She’s learned everything so fast,” senior Tricia Smith said. “The first day she was afraid to do a back walkover on beam, but she got it. She’s a really hard worker.

“We would not have been able to make it [to state] without her.”

An assist also goes to Smith, who spent the first two months of the school year convincing Lienau to come out of retirement and join the Gar-Field squad. After rebuffing Smith’s first few recruitment attempts, Lienau finally decided to give it a try.

It turned out to be the best decision she’s ever made.

“I wasn’t even interested at all last year or the beginning of this year,” Lienau said. “But Tricia kept asking me and after the first practice I knew I was going to love it. I’m really glad to be a part of this team.”

After taking a five-year break from the sport to pursue ventures in dance and cheerleading, the former Level 7 club performer returned to the gym and helped Gar-Field capture the Northwest Region championship for the first time in more than 30 years. She won the Cardinal District floor exercise championship — scoring a meet-record 9.65 — but it was her ascension from tumbling star to all-around performer that made Lienau the Indians’ most valuable gymnast.

“I kept getting on her about it,” Smith explained. “I said ‘Trust me, you’ll have so much fun.’ She tumbles really well in cheerleading so I thought she’d be really strong on floor and possibly beam.”

Lienau is a naturally gifted athlete on the floor exercise — an expressive platform that allows her to showcase her exquisite dance and tumbling skills. It’s an event she fell in love with as a novice 5-year-old.

“I like being able to dance and express myself,” said Lienau, who has belonged to gyms in North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Her gymnastics roots are firmly planted in Woodbridge now, but the seeds of her success were sewn more than a decade ago when she used to tag along with older sister, Robyn, to practice. Lienau learned to flip on a trampoline the family had set up in the back yard during a three-year stay in Texas and, after settling in Virginia, she rose from Level 5 to Level 7 in just two years at Capital Gymnastics.

The rigors of club gymnastics finally took their toll, however, and she left the sport the summer prior to her seventh grade year.

“We had hard practices. I’d be at the gym from 4-8 every day,” Lienau said. “I was about to be an optional 7 and I was excited about it, but it seemed to take forever and I got tired of it.”

Her first season of high school gymnastics has revitalized Lienau’s interest. Not to mention her competitive fire. After competing in three events — and scoring no higher than an 8.5 on floor — in Gar-Field’s season-opening victory over Forest Park, she scored a season-high 35.7 in the all-around on Saturday to help the Indians end Stafford’s six-year reign as Northwest Region champions, 144.825-144.4.

“I was expecting for it to basically be pure fun, just going to practice and hanging out,” Lienau said. “I had no idea how competitive it was. I never won anything in gymnastics, cheerleading or dance that was this big a deal.”

Winning a Cardinal District title for the first time since 1998 and making it back to state as regional champs was a huge deal for the Indians. It wasn’t something they seriously considered, however, until Lienau came aboard.

She was the final piece to a small, but talented, squad that also includes Smith, Cardinal District balance beam champion Tracy Cloninger, all-region junior Megan Sullivan and junior Trevor Stanley.

“There was a lot of pressure, but it was also fun to be in that spot,” Lienau said. “It really motivated me because I wanted to do it for the team. There’s only five of us and there’s no margin for error.

“I was really scared in the beginning because I didn’t think I’d fulfill the expectations they needed,” she said. “I had to work hard and I couldn’t slack off at all. We didn’t have room for that.”

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