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The End and Beginning of a Career

Springfield's Katie O'Rourke leaves behind Junior Olympic gymnastics for college.

Springfield resident Katie O'Rourke, 18, is nearing the end of one phase of her illustrious gymnastics career.

On May 6, Katie O'Rourke competed in her last Junior Olympic Nationals competition in Dallas and placed ninth overall and fourth on the balance beam.

"What a way to go out," said Deborah O'Rourke, Katie's mother, in repeating the words of a college coach who watched her daughter at the competition. The sporting life of a gymnast is short. Female gymnasts typically peak in their early teenage years, compete in college and then retire.

"After you’re done with college, most people retire," said Tatiana Perskaia, Katie O'Rourke's coach. "Some of them go back to club, but most of them are basically done. They start their life."

Like an old vet, the J.E.B. Stuart High School senior has battled numerous injuries throughout her career. She even endures one today just so she can compete uninterrupted.

"She has a broken bone in her wrist," Deborah O'Rourke said. "She won't get it fixed until she has finished gymnastics because it's three months of recovery. She doesn't want to wait that long."

One could even argue that Katie O'Rourke has peaked and that her best performance — winning the Junior Olympic Nationals all-around in 2008 — is behind her.

Katie O'Rourke doesn't see it that way.

"I'd probably say it's the end of my Junior Olympic career and the beginning of a new one," she said. "I have a new career to look forward to."

In the fall, she'll start classes at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a full athletic scholarship for gymnastics.

"[College gymnastics] is a step up," she said. "If you're not on the Olympic track, then you aim for a college scholarship."

Katie O'Rourke doesn't sound like a gymnast on her way out either.

She said she plans to bring her powerful balance beam skills and desire to learn new and harder techniques to the Panthers’ gymnastics team.

"It's very exciting for me," she said.

More change is coming in Katie O'Rourke's life than her level 10 gymnastics career ending, a career that took her to locales such as France and Italy.

College typically represents a change in lifestyle for graduating seniors — a chance to be on their own, find themselves and experience new ideas. One major change O’Rourke will endure is a new way of competing in gymnastics.

"College is more of a team game," she said. "Junior Olympic is more individual. Collegiate is more about everyone working together."

Katie O'Rourke isn’t the only one whose life will change.

Deborah O'Rourke is accustomed to driving her daughter to training sessions before and after school, spending her weekend traveling to competitions or watching practices at Capital Gymnastics.

"You meet a lot of nice people," she said. "It's really fun and that's all ending."

So, along with empty nest syndrome, the O'Rourkes will be battling empty gym syndrome. Still, it's a bittersweet ending. Deborah O'Rourke said she's proud to witness her daughter achieve her goal of competing in college.

"A lot of kids bail," Deborah O'Rourke said. "This was always her dream. Gymnastics is her life."

Katie O'Rourke isn't all-gymnastics all the time. Among other interests, she's a die-hard Washington Capitals fan and enjoys talking about their star player Alexander Ovechkin.

"I have his sweater," she said. "I'm not sure I'm going to tell my friends at Pitt about it until my sophomore year."

When Katie O'Rourke has free time, she said she tries to spend it with friends, but she doesn't regret giving up so much time to gymnastics.

With her last Junior Olympic nationals competition over, no one would blame Katie O'Rourke for wanting to take some time off, relax and enjoy her high school graduation, but that won't be the case this summer.

It's Katie O'Rourke's nature to constantly train for gymnastics.

"She loves gymnastics," Deborah O'Rourke said. "When we got back from the [Junior Nationals] competition in Dallas, we got home at 1 a.m. The next day she was up early to get to the gym."