As the lights shine down on the competition, chalk fiercely glistens down her hands and legs. Like a soldier preparing for battle, she stares down her opponent; for it is not just another competitor, but, rather, the bars, beam and floor.
While strength, flexibility and balance defines the life of gymnast, Illinois State sophomore gymnast Gabrielle Cooke not only strives to be one the best gymnasts in the Midwest — she has already achieved it.
Named the Midwest Independent Conference Gymnast of the Year in March, Cooke’s skills proved to be the most impressive for the Redbirds and the MIC conference this year.
A three-time 2018 MIC Performer of the Week during the season — which ended March 23 — Cooke established that her talent will not be denied as one of the best all-around gymnasts in the conference.
Cooke scored over 39.000 in the all-around in three meets, as well as her number two overall ranking on the floor. Her season-high all-around score of 39.250 was tied for second in conference while her season-high mark of 9.900 on the floor was ranked first in the MIC.
While these achievements come as an outcome of countless hours in the gym and dedication to the sport she loves, Cooke looks back on her roots and inspirations as a young gymnast learning the ropes.
“I was about six when I started competing,” Cooke said. “Even when you’re young, gymnastics has a really demanding schedule because you train a lot, I just stuck with it ever since.”
“When I was younger, I looked up to Olympic gymnasts like Alicia Sacramone, who was a 2008 Olympian. As I got older, I had a family friend who was a gymnast at NIU, so I kind of really looked up to her to do college gymnastics and that was what I aspired to do.”
As one of the more prolific Olympic sports, gymnastics requires mental toughness and physical endurance. Athletes train almost their entire lives to achieve greatness and with each surpassing level, more rigorous training schedules follow suit.
“[Training] definitely increases as you get older, especially in high school when you’re trying to get recruited,” Cooke said. “In the summers, you usually spend five to six hours in the gym a day.”
Coinciding schoolwork with practice her entire life, the sophomore journalism student emanates the student-athlete way of life. Along with training, Cooke pointed to coursework as her biggest challenge of being a collegiate gymnast.
“Balancing school with gymnastics,” she said. “Balancing it in high school was a little different, but obviously in college it is more demanding physically and academically. Our coaches really care about our academics [so] finding balance between the two can be difficult.”
Coming off her stellar sophomore season, Cooke asserts that her goals have always been about the team.
“I want the team to make it to regionals, that’s my goal,” Cooke said. “Our team is pretty united. Some teams we go against don’t look as united and don’t like they’re having fun. We definitely go out there and have a lot of fun. We always got each other’s backs.”
As Cooke and teammates strive to put ISU gymnastics on the map, she is grateful to be a part of and represent Illinois State wherever she competes.
“It means a lot to me to represent ISU,” she said. “Being a collegiate athlete and a role model for younger girls who watch our meets is truly an honor.”
The Redbirds will be back in action next January as Cooke and her teammates take the floor in 2019 in search for a NCAA regional title. Until that time, you can count on Cooke being in the gym working on her routine, quietly preparing for her next chance at glory.