Balancing Gymnastics, Academics is a Contortionist Act at LCHS

La Cañada High School doesn’t field a gymnastics team, but if did, the Spartans would be a force to be reckoned with. Tough as it might be to believe, there are, indeed, far more than five gymnasts in America.
“It’s pretty funny when the Olympics roll around and everyone is asking you, ‘Are you going to the Olympics?’” recent LCHS graduate Sofia Menemenlis said by phone from Yale, where she is just beginning her academic and gymnastics career.
“The only real exposure people have to gymnastics in this country is the Olympics, so people don’t realize there are a lot of gymnasts who are competing at a high level and compete in college. [Not] every gymnast who trains a lot and is really devoted to the sport wants to go to the Olympics.”
LCHS — which, in the late-1970s, had successful school gymnastics squads — has had a handful of these types of ultra-devoted, talented tumblers on its campus in recent years, including Menemenlis, University of North Carolina freshman Raine Gordon and current Spartans Emily Carr and Matthew Randolph among them.
These student-gymnasts handle both the Level-10 rigors of their school’s academic curriculum and a sport that requires between 23 and 29 hours of training per week.
“Have you seen what these gymnasts do? They’re unbelievable athletes, maybe the best athletes in the school,” Principal Ian McFeat said. “They’re flipping in the air and contorting and jumping on balance beams and flipping around — just unbelievable stuff. And there is such a commitment to doing that kind of work.”
That’s the ultimate beauty of it, Menemenlis said: “I get to go in every day and challenge myself physically and mentally and see what I’m capable of.”
But while Olympic all-around champion Simone Biles might put in more hours at the gym than Menemenlis and her local counterparts, it’s likely the four-time gold medalist is not regularly up past midnight finishing her homework, as LCHS senior Carr is.
Carr’s school day begins at 7:45 a.m. and ends, technically, at 1:40 p.m. — not that she leaves campus then. Her routine lands her at the Information Resource Center on campus for a couple of hours, when she gets started on homework until it’s time to pack up and head to the gym in Pasadena.
Then, from 4:30 until 9 p.m., she’s at Club Champion Gymnastics in Pasadena, honing her skills in the four disciplines: floor exercises, balance beam, vault and her favorite, the uneven bars. By the end of practice, she says she’s starting to think about school again because more homework awaits.
When she gets home, she eats while she stays up and studies. How late? She often is finally winding down when the late-night talk shows are.
“Homework is necessary and it’s good practice, it’s just that six hours of homework isn’t necessary,” said Carr, who carries a 4.0-plus grade-point average and anticipates joining Menemenlis — a National Merit Award finalist as a senior — as an Ivy League gymnast next year.
For the record, Carr doesn’t go to the gym on Thursdays; that’s when she goes to physical therapy to help cope with some of the injuries she’s battled over the years. Among other ailments, she’s suffered a fractured foot, a sprained elbow and has a nagging case of Achilles tendinitis.
She shrugs all that off, though, and downplays having to miss a few Fridays of school each year to travel to out-of-state competitions. And although she jokes that the most common text message response her friends see from her is “Sorry, I have gym,” she also brushes off the notion that her gymnastics career has required great sacrifices similar to those made by Biles and other Olympians.
“A lot of them are home-schooled just because the only way to get to that level is to train six hours a day,” Carr said. “And that usually involves two practices, one in the morning and one in the evening, which you can’t do if you’re going to public school. So it’s a choice: Do you want a formal education or do you think you’ll be successful enough to sacrifice that and focus mostly on training?”
Said Menemenlis: “There were times when it was a bummer to miss out on social events or other school things, but overall I didn’t have an abnormal high school experience because of it. And if I hadn’t done gymnastics, I would’ve probably just found ways to waste my time. I definitely don’t see the time I spent in gymnastics as a really big sacrifice.”
If anything, it has schooled these athletes on time management, on what it takes to (mostly) suppress the desire to get on YouTube or Snapchat. There have been other valuable life lessons, too, of course.
“The best thing is being able to overcome your fear,” said Carr, whose resume includes wins in the all-around, vault and bars at the SoCal State Championships in 2014, as well as a pair of runner-up finishes (by less than .10 combined points) at the Western National Championships that year.
“I remember being terrified of handstands on the beam. And I have a lot of other skills that I used to be scared of. But now they’re fun — I’m not as scared. Of course, you have to focus, but that fear factor is almost gone.
“It’s just that you’ve messed up on it so many times, you know every single possible thing that could go wrong, and what to do if it goes wrong. You have to mess up in practice so you don’t mess up in competition.”
So, sufficient studying prepares you for any exam.
“It would be great, wouldn’t it,” McFeat asked, “if we had some kind gymnastics squad at the school?”
After contemplating the notion, Carr said, yes, she probably would compete for LCHS — in addition to her club team. So, too, would have Menemenlis. “It was never really an issue, but if there were a team, I probably would’ve had more school spirit during high school, because I would’ve been representing our school,” she said.

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