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Standout gymnast takes on challenge

A 12-year-old talent experiences her first tough competition outside the state.

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
When Kaitlin O'Brien isn't honing her gymnastics skills, she can be found studying, playing the violin or coaching disabled children at the YMCA.

By TERRY JONES

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


CARROLLWOOD -- Kaitlin O'Brien was was barely out of diapers when she started her gymnastics career. At 2 years old she was taking classes on the mats, starting with forward rolls and basic maneuvers, at the Bob Sierra YMCA.

Now 12, she has emerged as one of the top Level 8 gymnasts in Florida and has experienced her first tough competition outside the state.

O'Brien, who lives in Carrollwood and attends Adams Middle School, now trains with coach Kevin Griffin at the Lightning City gymnasium.

During the Level 8 state championships in late March, she placed ninth on the uneven bars and eighth on the floor exercises to earn a berth in the Southeastern Regionals.

In the regional meet, the youngster met the toughest competition she has ever faced. In her floor exercises she scored 9.1 (on a 10.0 scale) to place 41st in the event.

When it was over, in a field of 60 competitors in her group, she placed 45th overall.

"It was a good experience for her to meet that kind of competition," Griffin said. "She will make her adjustments and place much higher next time. She is a determined gymnast with a good work ethic and a very good all-around athlete. She does well at her level in Florida, which is one of the most competitive states, so she is in a good training ground."

Griffin said 79 of the 220 regional qualifiers and 16 of the top 20 finishers were from Florida.

O'Brien is finishing the seventh grade and plans to enter Tampa Catholic as a freshman in 2002. She hopes to move up to Level 9 in gymnastics this summer and, eventually, to Level 10. "I want to earn a college scholarship, and Level 10 is where college coaches recruit. I have to learn a few more tricks for my routines to move up to Level 9."

O'Brien's activity schedule isn't limited to sports. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, plays the violin and works as a volunteer teaching gymnastics to disabled children at the YMCA. She also plans a 505-mile bicycle trip this summer with with the parents of friends in her neighborhood.

"I stay busy, but it doesn't take away from my goals in gymnastics," she said. "Regionals are competitive . . . Every move counts and that makes practice even more important."

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