PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Meegan Daigler was 4 when she watched Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and the rest of the Olympic gymnastics team flipping and frolicking through the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“I wanted to be doing what they were doing on TV as soon as possible,” said Daigler, now a Cheverus High senior. “I begged my mom for an entire year.”

Daigler’s mother, Karen, a former competitive swimmer, suggested aquatics. Meegan wouldn’t budge.

“She finally relented,” Daigler said, “when I was 5.”

A dozen years later, Daigler remains committed to gymnastics, making the hour-long commute from her home in Gorham to Atlantic Gymnastics in Portsmouth, N.H., five days a week to train. She is one of the four Maine schoolgirls at the New Hampshire club who qualified to compete this weekend in the Level 9 regional championships in Danvers, Mass.

The top six all-around gymnasts in each age group will advance to the Eastern championships April 29 to May 2 in Charleston, W.Va.
“I’ve always been impressed with the kids who come down (from Maine),” said Tony Retrosi, owner of the gym in Portsmouth and East Coast administrator of elite competition for USA Gymnastics. “They spend a lot of time on the road.”

Also qualifying from Atlantic for the regional meet are Jillian Knight, a Noble High senior, and a pair of freshmen, Ashley Belanger of Biddeford and Isabel Goodwin of York.

“Each kid tends to be good at different things,” Retrosi said. “Isabel is just a beautiful dancer on floor. Ashley is amazing on bars. Jillian does a really nice balance beam. Meegan is your steady kid on each event.”

At a New Hampshire meet in March, Belanger won the all-around competition among girls age 15 and 16. Goodwin, a floor exercise champ, was fourth.

“I like to dance,” Goodwin said. “You can show off the most and have the most personality.”

In the 17-plus age group, Daigler won all-around and Knight was fourth. However, Daigler learned of a fracture requiring her to wear a hard boot for a month, keeping her out of the Eastern meet for the second straight year.

She missed last year’s event because of wrist surgery.

“There are two guarantees with gymnastics,” Retrosi said. “One, you’re going to get hurt. Two, you’re going to get frustrated. It’s how you deal with it that counts.”

“It takes a different sort of mental toughness than any other sport,” said Daigler.

Gymnastics took a hit six years ago when the Maine Principals’ Association dropped it. Only six high schools had teams.

Private clubs, which supplied the majority of high school gymnasts anyway, continue to operate. Daigler, for example, started at the Maine Academy of Gymnastics (MAG) in Westbrook and moved at 8 to Dudziak’s School of Gymnastics in Biddeford before settling, at 12, into the Atlantic gym.

Andy Valley Gymnastics of Lewiston and MAG are sending three Level 10 boys to a regional meet this weekend in Southbury, Conn. Level 10 is the highest ranking below Elite Level, and those who advance will qualify for the Junior Olympics in early May in Knoxville, Tenn.

On a recent weekday evening, the industrial-looking Atlantic gym buzzed with activity as three dozen girls clad in multi-hued leotards pranced and tumbled, twirled and vaulted. The ages ranged from 9 to 19. A vast array of tall trophies lined the walls, far too many to display behind glass. A large sign affixed near the vaulting springboard read: Attitude is Altitude.

High school gymnastics isn’t completely dead, however. Knight said 30 girls tried out for Noble’s club team, which practiced once a week in donated space at a gym in Rochester, N.H.

“We’re the last high school in Maine to have gymnastics at any level,” Knight said. “It’s not the easiest sport out there, but I’ve always considered the things you take from gymnastics to be more than skills.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]