WATERTOWN – A trip to the Class A state meet has become a yearly tradition for the Watertown-Mayer/Mound Westonka gymnastics team. For the fifth-straight year, the Royals will be back at the state meet after dominating the competition at the Section 5A meet Feb. 14.
“It feels really awesome,” senior Ailsa Gilbert said. “Today, we really came together as a team. We had fun. We had each other’s back. We left it all out on the floor and came away with the win.”
While the end result was another impressive win for the Royals, things didn’t start out too smoothly for W-M/MW. After a slow start on balance beam, for the Royals’ standards, they put that behind them and finished strong on their way to posting their best score of the season.
“We started out on beam, and were a little rough there,” Royals coach Steve Hangartner said. “They left it on beam. We were able to put the other three events together. Sometimes you can get down after an event, and it affects everything else just like a basketball game. They put it together after that first event. They went out in the hall and did some talking to each other and said let’s get going. After that, they finished pretty good.”
After the shaky start, Gilbert, a senior captain, gathered her team together and settled them down following their first rotation.
“I think it shows what we are as a team,” Gilbert said. “I gathered all the girls and brought them into the hallway. We just let our emotions go and knew that was that event, and we have the next event. We knew we needed to have fun and do our thing. On floor, we did just that, and we came away with a great result.”
With beam behind them, the Royals turned things around on floor to get their mojo back. The Royals posted their best score of the four events on floor, totaling a score of 36.875 as a team.
On floor, the Royals had the top three spots as a team, and four of the top five. Gilbert won floor with a score of 9.475, while freshman Anna Mielke took second place with a score of 9.275, helping the Royals bounce back in a big way in their second rotation.
“You just have to go event-by-event,” Mielke said. “Move-by-move. Do your best, and then move on. We did bond as a team. It became a very team aspect over being an individual one. It was really cool to see.”
The Royals would go on to dominate in their final two rotations, capping off another Section 5A title and a trip to the state meet. When the Royals could have let a disappointing start keep them from reaching their goal, they came together.
“We know that when ever we don’t have the best event, the team has our back,” Gilbert said. “Me and Anna, personally, we always know we have each other’s back and everyone else on the team. I think that’s so cool. It’s not like we have three captains. It’s like everyone is a captain, because everyone comes together and they have everyone’s back. It’s super cool, especially when you have a mistake on an event. You know that they’re going to be there. They’re going to help you through it.”
While the Royals surely have an abundance of talent, there’s something else about the team that sets them apart from the competition.
“They’ve got a lot of team chemistry,” Hangartner said. “They get along. They all think team first. It’s easy in a sport like this to think individually. We had some girls that didn’t do as good as they usually do, but right away, they were back out there cheering for the next girl, even though they didn’t do as well as they would have liked. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
The Royals have the perfect makeup of a team. With four seniors (Gilbert, Kylie Hoese, Taylor Hix, and Teagan Schmidt), surrounded by young talent like Mielke, Ella Blinkhorn, Paige Thibault, Kate Thibault, Maris Huen, and Erin Singsank, the dynamic of the W-M/MW gymnastics team is one to behold.
“We have some really good captains,” Hangartner said. “Teagan and Ailsa were captains last year and this year. Then adding Taylor as a captain this year added another dimension to that. That really helped. That really helps when you have leadership where everybody is having fun and there’s nobody fighting. There’s no drama. We can just coach without having to deal with situations. It makes it a lot more fun. They’re having fun. Everybody is having fun.”
There’s no doubt that this senior class has made their impact on the program. They’ve led the right way and it’s made the Royals one of the most successful programs in the state.
“There is going to be positive repercussions in the next few years because of these seniors,” Hangartner said. “There’s a lot of things that they can do that I can’t. They can pull a team together and get things done that a coach can try to do, but when it comes from their peers, it’s pretty neat to see it.”
While the seniors are there for leadership, there’s plenty of young talent eager to push them and make sure no one on the team gets complacent. There’s also no doubt that the age difference between teammates has no problem on creating life-lasting relationships.
“I just love that we can be such good friends on and off the mat,” Gilbert said. “(Despite) our age difference, we are so close. When we’re in an event, we know it’s game time. We’ve got each other and we’re going to put our best foot forward. We’re proud of each other.”
It’s been an especially fun and memorable season for Mielke. Just a freshman, Mielke won the all-around title at the Section 5A meet with a score of 36.650. While Mielke has always looked up to Gilbert and other members of the team, she gets to compete with and against her, which is something that means a lot to her, and a big reason for her individual success this season.
“When I was younger, I always looked up to Ailsa,” Mielke said. “Now, having her as a competitor and a teammate, it’s really cool. We push each other to do our best. It’s been to just keep pushing myself to do better. It’s setting goals and trying to accomplish them. Just keep moving forward, try to do better, and always improve.”
Gilbert is a great person to look up to for Mielke. Not only has she been a constant leader for the Royals in her gymnastics career, she’s also accomplished something that no gymnast ever has in program history. When Gilbert takes the mat Friday for the Class A state meet, she’ll be doing so for the sixth time in her career – a school and program record.
“It’s super cool,” Gilbert said about the record. “I didn’t really actually know that it was a record. Learning about that today was super cool. I’m just very fortunate that I’ve had the ability, and just the opportunity to do this for so many years with such a great team. I’ve made so many memories along the way.”
While the Section 5A title was a reasonable goal for the Royals coming into this season, they’ve certainly earned it. The Royals have endured injuries and illness all season long, keeping them from sending out their full lineup for most of the season. Despite all that, the Royals battled through the regular season, and once again will find themselves on the state’s biggest stage.
“This is the first meet we’ve had our whole lineup in from last year,” Hangartner said. “We did have some people that came in a stepped up, like Maris. We had some injuries early, and it was just trying to get everyone healthy. That’s just part of it.”
With many meets where the Royals knew they wouldn’t be sending out a full lineup, patience was the key. Knowing the talent was there, the Royals remained patient and kept pushing forward, as they knew they couldn’t win the section title in December or January.
“Each meet is it’s own little challenge,” Gilbert said. “We pick something that we’re going to fix. Building up to the section meet, we’ve done all these things and now it’s kind of showing. We hope that we can show more and shine even more at state.”
“It’s hard,” Mielke added about being patient. “You just have to keep working hard and keep working forward. We use our meets almost as practice to get the experience. Then we go back to the gym and work on them. It’s super cool to see everything we’ve worked on throughout the season come together.”
At the state meet last season, the Royals brought home a second-place finish. With their entire roster back –and now healthy – the Royals have their sights set high once again.
Those sights are set on Detroit Lakes, one of the top gymnastic programs in the state. The Lakers have won the last four Class A titles, and with the improvement of other Class A teams, the Royals will be in for a battle.
“It’s going to be a hard reach, but we’re definitely reaching for that,” Gilbert said. “We’re going to put our best foot forward, and we are going to have so much fun at the state meet. Hopefully, that shines through on our performances.”
I think that they’re there and we just have to go for it,” Mielke added. “They’re the top dogs, and you always want to beat the best.”