Up from the ashes: Field of Dreams gymnasts, following fire, place first in state championship

Published 3:03 pm Monday, April 22, 2024

Smithfield’s first-ever Amateur Athletic Union gymnastics state champions – 11-year-old Mackenzie Hess and 13-year-old Kayleigh Wilson – are no strangers to adversity.

In the three months since a Jan. 18 fire destroyed the warehouse housing their gym, Field of Dreams Gymnastics, and a dozen other tenants, the girls and their families have made the 45-minute drive from Smithfield to Hurricane Gymnastics in Chesapeake, sometimes two or even three times per week, to practice.

Their persistence paid off when each took a first-place award at the platinum level in the Xcel Division for their age groups at the inaugural AAU Virginia District state championship at Positively Gymnastics in Lebanon, more than 360 miles west of their hometown. There are seven competition levels within the Xcel Division based on age range: copper, bronze, silver, gold, platinum, diamond and sapphire.

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Field of Dreams Coach Barry Keeley, a former collegiate gymnast in the 1960s, said the competition drew nearly 60 gymnasts, primarily from the southwest area of the state. 

“Virginia just started their AAU gymnastics program a year or two ago and has been primarily competing in Tennessee and North Carolina with their already existing AAU programs,” said Jessica Harris, AAU’s national chairwoman.

AAU’s Virginia District, which largely mirrors the state’s borders but excludes Arlington and Fairfax counties and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, was formed in 1934 and has maintained its current boundaries since 1968, according to the organization’s website, but until now hasn’t had enough gymnastics participants to host its own state competition.

 “This was such an exciting year to see the numbers grow enough to house its first AAU district championship,” Harris said.

“AAU Gymnastics has only recently been present in Virginia beginning in the Fall of 2022, when they appointed me as the Virginia District Chair,” said Virginia District Chairwoman Tracy Counts. “Since then we have been working on establishing more clubs to participate in AAU gymnastics, and this April we were able to have our very first AAU Virginia State District Championship. … Before this year our Virginia athletes had to travel to Tennessee to participate in their district championship since Virginia did not have a district chair.”

The judging criteria for the AAU championship was the same as what’s used by USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport, Keeley said. Participating gymnasts, male and female, were judged on a one-to-10 scale based on four events: vaulting, where gymnasts launch themselves into the air from a springboard, swinging from uneven bars, crossing a four-inch-wide balance beam and a floor exercise routine, which consists of a 30- to 90-second performance of tumbling and dancing to music. Some scores varied by as little as 0.1 points, Keeley said.

Each participant also received a cumulative “all around” or AA score.

Among girls ages 9-12, Hess scored first place overall, first place in floor exercise, second place in vaulting, second place in bars and third place in balance beam.

Wilson, who competed against girls ages 13-15, took first place in vaulting, second all around, second in bars, second in balance beam and second in floor exercise.

Additional Field of Dreams scores were as follows:

  • Averi Bowe, age 9, competed at the gold level in the Junior A Division among girls ages 9-12. She scored sixth all around, sixth in vaulting, fourth in bars, sixth on the balance beam, and fifth on floor exercise.
  • Jocelyn Beckman, age 13, competed at the gold level in the Junior B Division, among girls ages 13-15. She placed fifth all around, second in vaulting, fifth in bars, fourth on the balance beam and fifth in floor exercise.
  • Caylee Davis, age 8, competed at the silver level in the Children’s Division against other 8-year-olds. She scored sixth all around, fifth in vaulting, second in bars, sixth on the balance beam and fifth in floor exercise.
  • Zoey Lunsford, age 7, competed at the bronze level in the Children’s Division against other 7-year-olds. She scored seventh all around, seventh in vaulting, fifth in bars, sixth on the balance beam, and sixth in floor exercise.

Field of Dreams’ gymnasts cited the friendships they’ve made through gymnastics as driving them to keep going after the fire.

“It was a very unexpected incident and I thought to myself it could be a reason I had to work even harder to keep pushing myself,” Hess said. “I did it for me, my friends (gymnasts) and my mother. I dedicate my motivation to her. I love this sport.”

“It was a very tragic event but I chose to keep going because I knew if I wanted to get good I had to keep going … when we go to Hurricane I get home at 9 p.m. and go to bed at 10:30,” said Beckman. “So I am pretty tired in the morning but I need to keep my grades up so I don’t fail my grade. It’s hard but I chose to keep going.”

“We have continued after the fire because we have invested time and money and are believing in the process of good things will come to those who continue through the hard times,” said Jocelyn’s mother, Roxanne Beckman.

Field of Dreams is still actively seeking a new home close to Smithfield, Keeley said.

He’s negotiated an agreement with a gym owner from New York to purchase like-new equipment for just over $93,000, “but we need the insurance money to purchase and a place to put it,” Keeley said.

Field of Dreams is looking for a minimum of 8,000 square feet with at least 16-foot ceiling height, he said.

Keeley said he’s also received an offer from a former male gymnast he used to coach to donate over 1,700 square feet of spring mat for floor exercise, valued at $30,000, once a new site becomes available.

A GoFundMe.com online fundraising campaign Mackenzie’s mother, Julie Hess, started following the fire had raised $6,990 or 4.6% of its stated $150,000 goal as of April 19.