Blades takes off


Even as a little girl, Nicole Blades was fascinated with flipping through the air.

She can remember sitting mesmerized in front of the television when she was 7 years old and marveling at the way Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci could propel her body so effortlessly over the vault.

Back then, it almost appeared as if Comaneci was flying. Blades wanted to fly as well and often daydreamed about being like “all the famous gymnasts.”

In her first year of high school, Blades is the same age that Comaneci was when she captured the first of her five gold medals. The 14-year-old Forest Park freshman may not be competing on an international stage, but she is flying and winning gold.

“Being in the air, going around and around and around is fun for me,” said Blades, who has rapidly become one of the area’s most popular and entertaining gymnasts.

Though the transition from Level 8 club performer to fledgling high school star is still a work in progress, Blades has already earned a reputation as one of the Northwest Region’s premier vaulters right alongside her current role models: Osbourn Park junior Kelly Stevison and Woodbridge senior Rebecca Ruppert.

“I love flipping. That’s my favorite thing,” said Blades, who scored a 9.3 with a first-place pike Tsukahara vault in her high school debut and then topped it with a 9.4 last week.

“She’s got the most awesome vault I’ve ever seen,” Bruins teammate Allison Anoll said. “She kind of inspires you to work hard because she’s doing so well.”

Blades has excelled on the vault throughout her career. She showed such promise in her first club practice at Novaks Gymnastics Center that she skipped beginner class and was placed in the developmental program.

“I was really surprised. I didn’t know I was that good,” Blades said. “They thought I had some kind of talent so they moved me up.”

Blades advanced four levels at Novaks and was competing in Level 5 when she switched gyms three years ago. Now, she on on the precipice of achieving Level 9 status at Capital Gymnastics in Burke, where she spends 16 hours working out each week.

“I’d heard about the really good elites from that gym. When I went there I loved it,” she said. “I want to be one of the girls they train to be elite.”

Despite sitting out a month last year — “I had a cast on my leg and I missed a meet. That made me mad,” she said. — Blades is on pace to reach her goal.

The daughter of a former high school gymnast, she has adapted quickly to varsity competition. After earning a 34.0 in her first all-around competition, Blades has been working on new skills to improve the difficulty of her routines.

“In high school meets, you have to have high skills to get high scores,” she said.

After overcoming an understandable case of nervousness during Forest Park’s first meet on Dec. 6, Blades has improved with each competition. She plans to include a half twist on one of the tumbling passes of her floor routine and is trying to perfect a straddle back release move on the uneven bars.

Blades is also developing a roundoff-layout-half twist dismount on balance beam and wants to add a twist element to her vault — even after beating Ruppert last week by scoring a 9.4 to edge the Vikings’ two-time all-state performer by one-tenth of a point.

“I need to try more advanced skills in my routines,” she said.

That is perfectly fine with Blades because it gives her another reason to flip.

In addition to the 16 hours she spends at Capital, Blades practices four hours each week with her Bruins teammates and allots two more hours on Sundays for private instruction. It is a rigorous regimen, one that doesn’t allow the usual social time most teenage girls prefer.

“It’s really worth it,” said Blades, whose 9-year-old sister, Kristin, has followed Nicole’s example and is already competing in Level 6 at Capital.

“We’re a lot alike, but she’s more outspoken. She says what’s on her mind and I’m more quiet and shy,” Blades said. “She can be so good. She has an advantage because she started younger than me. She can be at the top so much quicker.”

Nicole, however, is likely to get there first. She and sophomore teammate Valerie Ierley — the Bruins’ top all-arounder — are the Forest Park gymnasts with the most state-meet potential.

“I love high school. I was nervous the first day, but I was really excited about gymnastics,” Blades said. “It’s been a fun experience for me. My goal is to get a 36 [in the all-around], maybe a 37. I’ve never gotten a 37 before. I got a 36 in club.

“I’m trying to have fun in high school, but I’m still serious,” she said. “At meets I’m really focused. I want to be elite before I leave high school. My main goal, my life goal, is to go to the Olympics.”

Just like all the famous gymnmasts.

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