The Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy is a world-class gymnastics facility, something you wouldn't expect to see in the football-crazed town of Norman, Okla.
To one not well versed in gymnastics equipment, the gym looks like a child's paradise. Mats cover the entire floor, bordered by the occasional trampoline or pit full of foam squares. At least eight balance beams, each fewer than four inches in width, dot the landscape. Stanchions supporting high bars, uneven bars and parallel bars rise above everything, while rings hang from the tallest of the metal structures.
On top of everything sits a fine layer of chalk dust, turning everything a slightly lighter shade of its true color.
This facility has churned out its fair share of high-caliber college gymnasts, but no alumnus has come close to eclipsing the greatness of the namesake of the gym, nor that of his wife, Nadia Comaneci, who scored the first perfect score in Olympic history in 1976.
Just five gymnasts—two girls and three boys—from this gym have made the U.S. Junior National team over the years. On Thursday, a sixth will be looking to join those ranks, one which may have the highest ceiling of any previous gymnast to come out of this gym.
15-year-old Alex Marks stands in the corner of the floor exercise mat, taking a deep breath as she eyes the spot on the floor where she'll begin her routine. She runs, covering a third of the mat before launching into a dizzying array of cartwheels, twists and flips. She finally lands, taking a big step forward to maintain her balance. Satisfied, she jogs over to her coach, Christian Ivanov, to discuss her just completed pass.
Alex is the first Oklahoma gymnast to qualify for the U.S. National Championships since 2006. The competition, held August 15-18 in Hartford, Conn. will feature some of the best gymnasts in the country, all trying to make the Junior or Senior National teams.
Making the Junior National team has been a goal for Alex for a very long time and now she'll have the opportunity to do that against more than 30 other gymnasts battling for one of just six guaranteed spots.
"I completed my goal by getting to the championships which was a huge thing for me," Alex said in the academy's offices last week. "I want to try to make the national team, which is what this meet is all about. I'm just going to think about hitting all my events and the scores will take care of themselves."
Alex travels to Norman six days a week from her home in Cushing, Okla., a 90-minute drive one way. Her father, Jim, drives her Monday through Friday, with her mom, Kerri, taking over the duties on Saturday.
"The drive gets old but you have to deal with it and get used to it," Alex said. "It's a lot of hours and time put in, but it's all worth it in the end; I think it's worth it anyway."
Jim works in Oklahoma City during the week and drops Alex off in Norman before heading back to the city. After work, he drives back down to Norman to get Alex and head home to Cushing. Altogether, it's a four-hour drive and a hefty gas bill.
"I went and bought a Volkswagen Jetta diesel and I'm getting 45-50 miles to the gallon out of it but it's at least several hundred dollars a month in gas alone," Jim said with a laugh.
Alex got involved with gymnastics at a young age, starting tumbling classes when she was just three years old before gravitating up to gymnastics competition at age six. Her mother was a dancer, but Alex did not share the same passion for the activity as her mom did. She tried cheerleading and enjoyed it, but didn't get the same rush from that as she did from gymnastics.
"We tried everything with her, but this just seemed to be the thing she was most interested in and the thing she wanted to do more than anything else we had tried out for her," Jim said.
Alex's tall, slender frame is fairly unique in the gymnastics world. Ivanov—a former Olympic gymnast for Bulgaria in 2000—compares her to Russian gymnast legend Svetlana Khorkina and Nastia Luikin, the 2008 all-around gold medalist for the U.S.
"She's a very pretty gymnast," Ivanov said. "A pretty gymnast means she has a good look. You look at a good ballerina for example, and you say, ‘That's gorgeous, that's beautiful.' That's what we strive for gymnastics to look like."
There are advantages and disadvantages to being one of the tallest girls on the floor. For one, Alex's gymnastics look prettier and because of her height, she stands out compared to some of the shorter gymnasts. On the downside, it's simply harder to do gymnastics well the taller you are. Tumbling passes become more difficult; bar routines are harder because there is more body to swing around the bar. It's nothing mental, just simple physics.
Gymnastics has plenty of physical demands, but the time and commitment demands are even more incredible. To be an Elite gymnast, Alex has sacrificed any semblance of a normal life for an American teenager, all the way down to her education.
School for Alex consists of studying and doing homework any time she's not practicing. She's enrolled in the A Beka Academy, an online Christian school based out of Pensacola, Fla. Textbooks and videos of teachers giving lectures are mailed to Alex and she completes the work and mails it back for grading.
It's a life that consumes every bit of Alex's time, a life that doesn't allow any of what most would consider normal inside. But that's all right with Alex.
"I have a lot of experiences that a lot of people couldn't say they have," Alex said. "That's what gymnastics are good for. Most people can't say they're going to the USA Championships with (U.S. Senior National Team members) McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross.
"I get to see my friends on weekends. It's normal for me."
The main reason for the normalcy lies in the support Alex's parents have shown for her dedication to the sport. In a world where parents unfortunately choose to live vicariously through the achievements of their children, Alex is very thankful to have parents who support rather than beat down.
"I wasn't ever pushed into doing anything I wasn't happy in doing," Alex said. "They've always been very supportive in helping me get through my injuries and everything. They're really always positive about it.
"They're the best parents in the world."
For Jim and Kerri, that's the job they've been given and they're trying to do the best they can to support Alex in the demanding lifestyle she has chosen to pursue.
"We encourage her, we get her to her meets, provide the fiscal support and all those things," Jim said. "It's all you can do as a parent."
Alex swings through her routine on the uneven bars, her slender body looping effortlessly over the higher bar. Suddenly, her momentum falters, causing her to fail to maintain verticality. She dismounts, and walks toward coach Coral Borda—a former World Championship gymnast for Brazil—grimacing slightly and pointing to one of her elbows.
The two talk in hushed voices, a frustrated look on Alex's face. It's clear her elbow is bothering her and she's getting tired of it. After a minute or two, Borda asks, "Is that a pressure routine?" Alex nods. "Well, finish it out," Borda responds.
Alex jumps back up to the higher bar and restarts her routine, flawlessly executing several releases while Borda and Ivanov watched from the sidelines. Ivanov mentions how they had to completely redesign Alex's routines thanks to injuries she'd experienced over the past several years.
"When she came to us (in February), she was not in great shape," Ivanov recalled. "She was struggling physically. For us, we didn't know what to expect. We didn't, to be honest with you, know if she'd be able to make it to championships or make it that deep into the season.
"Since she was new to us, we didn't know how much she could push through and we're happy with how she has progressed."
The first injury came when Alex was 11, the result of being diagnosed with Osteochondritis (OCD), a joint disorder in which cracks develop in the articular cartilage and underlying bone. For Alex, the condition was in her elbows.
"The first one, it literally cracked a big chunk of bone right off of her elbow just doing a flight skill on beam," Jim said. "Her elbows had a tendency to hyperextend to begin with. We did the right thing. She had her surgery and they told her to lay off of it and don't do anything with it."
She took some extensive time off from the sport after surgery, allowing her body to recover. Doctors said the issue would probably resolve itself, but just a little over a year later, the issue came back, this time in her other elbow. Another injury meant another year off from competition.
While the first injury didn't do a lot to Alex's psyche, the second injury had more of an effect on her mentally.
"The second one knocked her down a little bit," Jim said. "It (the injury) wasn't quite as bad as the first one, but you could just tell. It was fairly demoralizing for her."
It was also hard for Jim and Kerri, who began to question whether or not the lifestyle their daughter had chosen was really worth it. However, Alex never wanted to quit despite being knocked down twice by devastating injuries. Not even a third injury, this time a foot injury that kept her in a boot for three months was enough to make her give up her dream.
"I never gave up," Alex said. "There are those times when you want to give up and you just can't. You just have to keep on thinking if you really want it or if you want to give up and not even try. I decided to push through and try."
Qualifying for the national championships after being completely recovered from injuries for only five months is a remarkable feat. Although the goal is to make the Junior National team, Alex has the right perspective, understanding this will have been a successful season regardless of the outcome of this week's competition.
The future is bright for Alex. She's already committed to attending the University of Oklahoma to continue her gymnastics career, but the summer before she enters college, the world's greatest sporting spectacle takes place in Rio de Janeiro.
The Olympics aren't out of the question for Alex, but right now, she's concerned with enjoying herself and taking things one step at a time.