To a certain extent, the intensity of the marathon practices in high school is what is needed to perfect a sport that demands perfection. It’s a mindset gymnasts grow up on through the sport. Because it’s just you and the mat.
“You’re using [only] your body,” Clemens said. “It’s not like you’re throwing a ball or learning how to use a piece of equipment that’s doing the work for you. You have to do all the work yourself.”
Working on their craft, in some cases virtually alone, can take a toll on gymnasts. Clemens enjoyed the increased voices of encouragement during both practice and competition. There simply weren’t many in the gym when competing in high school.
“The team aspect of it is huge,” Clemens said. “It is such an individual sport, before you get to college. I never really had a team (before Springfield) – it was just me and one other girl. (In high school) no one’s there to cheer; it’s silent when you’re competing.”
Next to high school gymnastics, the dynamics and norms of collegiate gymnastics can be completely different.
Yet when it comes to individual competition, conditioning and self-care is a principle to succeeding.
Wrestling, especially when it comes to cutting weight, is often misconstrued. Some wrestlers call it a ‘marginalized sport.’ Slimming down to a specific weight class is commonly thought to be achieved by cruel tactics -- by means of extreme fasting, or the starving of oneself.
It even takes some young wrestlers time to understand its nature. In high school, Gutierrez remembers his approach to making weight as being completely wrong. In ninth and 10th grade, meets would be scheduled for Friday or Saturday. Gutierrez ate whatever he chose between Monday and Wednesday. Then, he would ‘cut down a lot.’
“I remember not going to lunch (the rest of the week),” Gutierrez said. “Now I’m smarter about it. It comes (across) as a lot easier.”
“You just adapt. At the beginning of the year, every year, it kind of sucks, making that first weight. But it’s a part of the sport. You just develop a mentality to perform at that weight.”
The common misconception towards weight-cutting is the belief that wrestlers cannot eat or drink when attempting to hit the requirement for weight classes. The key lies more so in keeping an exceptional metabolism.
“If you understand yourself and do it right, you can eat and drink,” Feliz said. “Workouts … don’t have to be the most intense things, but you have to find a way to keep your metabolism going.”
Feliz eats four to five times a day, while drinking at least a half gallon of water. He approaches making weight with the goal of getting his heart rate up quickly, and keeping it up. An elevated heart rate equals more sweat, and more calories burned.
“You can (eat),” Feliz said. “Most of the time we’re so stubborn … we’re set in the traditional ways of ‘you can’t eat, you can’t drink.’ Because that’s what everyone in the past did. There wasn’t enough data or research done on nutritional components of wrestling. Now that there is, there’s ways to get around to eating.”
“You can’t lose what you don’t have. You can’t use energy if you don’t have energy.”
Feliz’s friend would be able to get him into his local LA Fitness if he got there before six. As a high schooler, he’d wake up five times a week to go. Then, he would shower and go to school.
It got easier once Feliz got his license. On top of driving him each morning, Feliz’s father, Miguel was sure to buy his son chicken to help give him protein.
Miguel never cared what it was -- he just wanted Aarin to be a part of something. It turned out to be wrestling.
Aarin started to wrestle in sixth grade. Before starting the sport, he was a self-described, ‘short and fat little kid’ who was tired of running around a soccer field. Yet during his first few years competing in middle school wrestling, he’d always look to run around a local apartment complex, just to get a sweat in to cut weight.
It was a sport that motivated him. Outside of his family, Feliz calls wrestling the most impactful thing he’s participated in.
Strength is part of the sport. Agility is another part of it. Speed, coordination, balance, flexibility. You have to have a combination of a little of everything. But that combination doesn’t guarantee success.
“The guys who do well … are the ones who are strongest with the six inches between their ears,” Feliz said. “They may not be the most skilled but … (if) something wrong happens, they get up, they keep moving.”
Feliz remembers being a sophomore in high school, wrestling in districts at the end of the year with six screws and a plate in his ankle. He had fractured it playing football and was supposed to have been out for the season.
In his first match since breaking his ankle, Feliz heard it from his coach first.
“You have the No. 3 seed.”
Up against one of the top talents in New Jersey, Feliz himself, was unseeded.
He won the match.
But wrestling is very up and down. Three years later, Feliz was wrestling as a freshman for Springfield, and entering his first tournament with this team at Ithaca College.
Going into the weekend, Feliz thought he could win a couple.
He went 0-for-2.
“After that, I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna quit,’” Feliz said. “‘That shouldn’t have happened, why did that happen?’ I was so upset with myself, and in that moment I was like, ‘You are not going to give up.’”
A few weeks later, after 200 pushups, 15 sprints, and 100 crunches a day, Feliz competed in the Doug Parker Invitational. He placed sixth.
“You need to leave your ego at the door, because you’re going to get beat,” Feliz said. “You’re going to get taken down. How are you going to respond? If you get too high on your horse, there is someone there who will be glad to remind you what it’s like to be back on Earth.
We’re very fortunate that we have guys in (Springfield’s program) who are very talented. So they’ll put you back on Earth. We all know what it’s like.”
Gymnastics is just as up and down. A gymnast can feel like they’re on a role, in a sport where it’s considered best to learn early, because of the unawareness of the difficulty and danger of certain routines.
That doesn’t prevent the occasional freeze-ups.
“You can come in one day and a skill that you’ve been doing for years – and something in your brain just forgets how to do it,” Clemens said. “People get mental blocks all the time … something you’ve done for years all of a sudden feels scary.
You can think you’re in a really good spot … but it’s so up and down that you just never know.”