By Dave Sorter
Arielle “Ari” Iola was sweating out the moments before the results were announced at the Texas High School Gymnastics Coaches Association state meet Saturday at Rockwall High School.
Iola, the captain of the Highland Park High School gymnastics team, was the defending state all-around champion, having swamped the field last year as a junior. But things were not so clear-cut at the 2013 meet.
“The competition was a lot bigger this year,” said Iola, a senior who is also on the Highland Park cheer squad. “There were a lot of club gymnasts this year. We weren’t really positive this time, so when they called my name, that’s when I knew.”
Indeed, Iola, the daughter of Darci and Randy Iola and a graduate of Ann and Nate Levine Academy, won her second straight all-around state championship, with a total score of 78.725 (out of a possible 80), 1.1 points better than runner-up Kassie Espinosa of Hurst L.D. Bell.
She also won gold in the floor exercise — her 19.8 total was a half-point better than second-place Espinosa — and the uneven bars, on which she scored a 19.75, including a perfect 10.0 in the compulsory round Friday. She beat Espinosa and Haili Menard of Humble Kingwood by 25/1000ths of a point.
Even though Iola was second overall on the balance beam — which she said is her best individual event — her 9.95 mark during Saturday’s optionals was a personal best. Her total score of 19.65 was 5/100ths of a point behind winner Kailee Coles of Rockwall. She also finished second in the vault with a 19.525, behind the 19.70 recorded by Mikea Knox of Euless Trinity.
Her effort was good enough to merit an invitation to the National High School Gymnastics Association Senior Showcase Invitational, scheduled for May 16-18 in Fort Myers Beach, Fla.
But before Iola could win that accolade, she had another hurdle to overcome, in addition to tougher competition.
“I came down with strep on Thursday,” Iola said. Last Thursday, the day before the two-day meet began, was supposed to be a practice day at the event venue. “So I had to recover really, really quick. The main advice I got during the meet was to stay focused and stay healthy.”
Recover she did. She was first in the all-around after Friday’s compulsories, so she had “my favorite rotation” — vault, bars, beam and floor exercise — during Saturday’s optional routines. She acknowledged doing a little scoreboard watching between apparatuses.
“I was kind of glancing at the scoreboard,” Iola said. “I knew the final would be an average of Day 1 score and Day 2 score. But I had to focus on finishing my routines.”
Her last event, the floor exercise, was done to a mix of Spanish music that Iola said she had been doing for years.
Iola started gymnastics at age 5, when the family was living in Tulsa, Okla.
“My mom said I was scaring her on the jungle gym in the backyard,” she said.
Darci Iola backs that up.
“Yes, that’s very true,” Darci said. “We enrolled her in Tulsa World of Gymnastics, so when we moved to Dallas, we found WOGA (the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy). She had to audition at 8:30 at night.”
WOGA is the gymnastics club that produced Olympic gold medalists Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin.
“We moved to Dallas because of WOGA,” Ari’s father, Randy, said.
But going to Levine, “We struggled to find time for her to compete at that level,” he said. “They’re in school until 4:30, and the other girls are usually competing by then.”
Many local gymnasts and other athletes on elite-level tracks attend Spring Creek Academy in Plano, but that wasn’t part of the Iolas’ plans.
“When she got to seventh grade, we discussed with her that she had to make a choice whether to go on the bat mitzvah track or stick with gymnastics,” Randy Iola said. There wouldn’t be time for both elite gymnastics and all that’s required for the bat mitzvah.
Added Ari: “I wanted to focus on studying for my bat mitzvah.”
So she celebrated her bat mitzvah at Anshai Torah in Plano, graduated from Levine and started at Highland Park, where she discovered there was a gymnastics team. She made state her freshman and sophomore years, and won the all-round, beam and floor state titles as a junior. She also was second in the vault and tied for fourth on the uneven bars last year.
“I think my routines are more consistent and the scores keep getting better,” Ari said about this season compared to last.
In addition to the thrill of victory, gymnastics had given Iola so much more, she said.
“Gymnastics has taught me lessons. It’s taught me to be focused, independent and self-disciplined,” she said. “It’s taught me to work well with other people. I’ve been captain for three years, so I learned how to lead the team by example.”
In fact, one of the teammates she is leading is also Jewish. Highland Park sophomore Roslyn Saplick placed 61st in the all-around competition and down in the field on the individual apparatuses.
Iola’s gymnastics career may be coming to an end, however.
“I think I’m going to retire after this season,” she said. “I’m going to the University of Maryland, and hopefully I will cheer there.”
She hopes to major in kinesiology or pre-physical therapy, she said.
“The difference gymnastics has made for her has been tremendous,” Randy Iola said. “It’s taught her a lot of balancing skills; how to balance academics versus athletics. Now that she’ll be going to college, she’ll have a lot more time to focus on academics.”