Local gymnast makes leap to BYU

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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KayCee Gassaway isn’t sure she’s ready for the next phase of life.

Ready or not, the 17-year-old from east Vancouver is committed to fast-forwarding her life.

After tumbling her way through some 13 years at Naydenov Gymnastics, Gassaway will take her talent to Brigham Young University. Last week, Gassaway signed a letter of intent to accept a full scholarship to compete in gymnastics at BYU.

She plans to finish high school one year early and enroll at the school in Provo, Utah, next fall.

In one sense, the scholarship was a long time coming. Gassaway was introduced to gymnastics as a somewhat hyper 4-year-old.

She said the family story is that her mother enrolled KayCee at Naydenov hoping the activity would burn away some of that energy.

“Instead, gymnastics kind of boosted my metabolism,” she recalled with a smile.

As Gassaway remembers it, her climb from beginner to competitor to five-time nationals participant started with a rope-climb challenge.

A coach offered a treat to the gymnast who was quickest to the top of a rope that hangs from the gym’s ceiling.

“I got up there and I realized that I didn’t know how to get down,” she recalled.

The result was a memorable case of rope burn, but she got the treat. And soon, she was added to the roster of Naydenov’s Level 4 team for beginning competitors.

Coached for much of her time by Erika Bakacs and Dimitri Taskov, Gassaway has represented the gym at the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Level 10 National Championships five of the last six years — finishing tied for 14th among 58 competitors in her age group in May. Two years ago, Gassaway missed the championship portion of the season because of a stress fracture in her back, so placing at the 2009 nationals was special.

That strong performance — Level 10 is one notch below the elites who compete internationally — was important to landing the college scholarship. At least five of the teammates she’s grown up with at Naydenov are current high school juniors who hope to land scholarships to compete in college.

For Gassaway, the college choice was easy. She currently has three older siblings at BYU. Once it became apparent KayCee could earn her high school diploma one year early, she stopped thinking about Stanford. She attended a summer gymnastics camp at BYU and impressed Cougars coaches enough to land that scholarship.

Last Wednesday, she made it official, signing the letter of intent during a ceremony at Naydenov. On Saturday, KayCee turned 17.

Soon — sooner than even she expected — she will be a college gymnast.

“I still don’t know if I feel old enough to be going to college,” she said.

For now, she is plenty busy attending Clark College running start classes from 9 to noon, then hurrying to the gym where she studies for a couple hours and then trains for five more.

It is a schedule she has known for many years — one that figures to serve her well when she gets to BYU.

Even with the scholarship secured, Gassaway isn’t interested in relaxing.

“In a way, the pressure is off,” Gassaway said. “But I still want to do well for me. Go out with a bang.”

Six times KayCee Gassaway has placed in the top-10 in an event at nationals, highlighted by a national title on the uneven parallel bars in 2006. She aspires to add a top-10 all-around performance before she leaves Naydenov for BYU.

Mostly, Gassaway is looking forward to sharing one more year with girls she’d grown up with.

“If I stay healthy and happy, then I’m good,” she said.

Tennis star also signs

Gassaway wasn’t the only girls with Vancouver roots to sign a big-time college scholarship last week.

Lilly Kimbell, who got her start at Vancouver Tennis Center, chose to play college tennis at the University of Georgia. Kimbell, who moved from Vancouver three years ago to attend the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Brunsfels, Texas, is the third ranked player in the girls 18-and-younger division by the United States Tennis Association.

Considered one of the top recruits in the nation this year, Kimbell chose Georgia over after also visiting Florida State, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois.

In April, the three-time Texas state champion was the subject of a cover story in ESPN Rise magazine. The Web site Tennisrecruiting.net profiled her last week.

PAUL DANZER covers Community Sports for The Columbian. Reach him at 360-735-4521 or paul.danzer@columbian.com.