Talent girl heads to nationals

Sixty-nine feet.

That's how far 12-year-old Maresa Epperson has to sprint to perform her gymnastics vault routine. One slip or a fall, though, and she risks the loss of crucial points from the judges. Or worse.

And if anyone knows about getting back up from a fall, it's Epperson.

The seventh-grader at Talent Middle School traveled to Whitefish, Mont., for a regional championship meet last month and performed an uneven bar routine that turned out to be anything but normal.

Coach Jeff Bettman, who was Epperson's spotter, recalls that she had performed poorly in warm-ups and could sense something was wrong even before she slipped and came off the bar — shooting straight at him.

His only thought, says Bettman, was to catch her by the hips. Epperson barely missed hitting her coach's knee and was caught before hitting the ground, keeping her free from injury.

"It really wasn't a physical injury but just more frightful," says Bettman.

For Epperson, the effects of the fall are hard for her to recall.

"I don't really remember anything, just letting go of the bar and being on the ground by my coach," she says. "I don't even remember him catching me."

Despite the fall in the first routine of the meet, Epperson continued and placed third in the regional all-around, qualifying her for the USA Gymnastics Level 9 Western Championships this weekend in Bartlesville, Okla.

Some 450 gymnasts from two dozen states will compete at the ConocoPhillips Gymnastics Club.

Epperson begins the competition today at 11:30 a.m. PDT.

She traveled Wednesday with her mother, Lillian, and Bettman, while her dad, Greg, and older brother, Gabe, will watch live online at www.level9westerngymnastics.com.

"She's worked hard, this hasn't come overnight," says Lillian. "We make a big deal of (her success), but sometimes she says, 'You have to chill.'"

Maresa's resumé boasts a number of state championships. In mid-March in Portland, she won the state all-around title for Level 9 as well as her third straight vault title — coming at three different levels — and her second straight balance beam crown.

At the Montana regional, she captured floor exercise and vault individual titles in addition to her all-around placing.

Epperson is accustomed to having her room adorned with medals and trophies, but that isn't why she competes.

"She gets her medals and then just throws them in a bag and goes on her merry way," says Lillian. "She doesn't like to brag."

While some middle school kids hang out at the mall after school, Epperson spends four hours a day in the gym, doing back flips, floor and bar routines followed by conditioning workouts. All in a day for an average athlete, right?

Not according to another of her coaches, Cathy Farley.

"She's not your average-joe person," says Farley, 54, who has been coaching gymnastics since she was 16.

Farley has seen gymnasts at Epperson's level over the years, but she and Bettman are amazed at the speed at which Epperson has accelerated. She's moved up nine levels in as many years and can go head-to-head with some collegians. There's only Level 10 between her and the Elite Level, which is where world-class gymnasts reside.

Epperson started at Level 1 when she was 4. The family lived in Yreka, Calif., and trained in Mt. Shasta City. Eventually, her parents commuted from Yreka to Medford, where Maresa was part of a couple clubs through the years.

In November, the family moved to Medford and Maresa moved to the U Sports Academy in Grants Pass, where she's developed a connection with her coaches.

The travel time and cost devoted to Maresa's gymnastics have been taxing at times.

"There were several times we wanted to quit," Lillian says.

But Maresa was adamant that she wanted to continue, telling her parents, "I can't leave gymnastics."

She punctuated her feelings by moving up from Level 6 to Level 7.

"You can't really be afraid of anything, you just have to go for it and try it," Maresa says. "You have to want to do that sport, and it takes a lot."

Despite her immersion into gymnastics and her vast success, Epperson retains the normal life of a kid.

"I like a separate life from gymnastics," she says.

She knows most of the people at all of the meets she attends and is a favorite among the girls at the gym.

She is not thinking about the Olympics but does plan to pursue a scholarship in college.

Today will be another step toward that end.

"I'm already very satisfied," says Bettman. "I'm looking forward to the education that we'll get at this meet because it will be the first time that she has seen high-level athletes from other regions."

As expectations go, she's exceeded many.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought she'd get this far," Lillian says.

And she's still going.

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