Strength is the word that comes out of people's mouths when asked about Michelle Pearson. According to the Virginia High School League record book, the 2000 Edison graduate is the most decorated female individual high school gymnast in the Northern Region's history with six titles.
"[Pearson] was stronger than any athlete around, and still is," said Mike Cooper, currently the head gymnastics coach at Fairfax, Oakton and Woodson. Cooper was the head coach of Lake Braddock from 1988 to 2000. During his reign, the Bruins won six district, five regional and five state titles.
ACCORDING TO COOPER, Pearson was a step above all but one gymnast, Lake Braddock's Sarah Spring, during her time. Pearson began her reign at the top of state girls gymnastics as a junior in 1999 — when she won four state titles. She won the all around state title, beating Spring 39.1 to 38.975. Pearson added the floor exercise title, the bars and the beam to her collection that year.
As a senior in 2000, Pearson came back strong, and won two more individual state titles. She defended her all-around title, scoring a 39.375 to set the state record at the time, which was broken in 2006 (Kara Wright, First Colonial, 39.5). Pearson took over where Spring left off on the vault. After Spring won three vault titles (1997, 1998, 1999), Pearson won in 2000 with a score that tied the state record (9.95).
ACCORDING TO THE VHSL record book, only two gymnasts in the history of VHSL female gymnastics have beaten Pearson's six individual state titles. Pearson sits in a 3-way tie for the third most titles in the state's history. The six titles are the most any female gymnast from the Northern Region has won.
Nicole Bascope, a 2000 graduate of Lake Braddock, competed against Pearson on the high school level and was her teammate on the Karons Gymnastics Club team.
"[Pearson] was just a powerhouse," said Bascope, the 1998 floor exercise state champion. She said if Pearson had stayed healthy, she would have gone on to do great things. Bascope added that Pearson made the hard floors used in high school seem like spring floors used in club gymnastics.
Keith Naquin, the gymnastics coach at Herndon and Chantilly echoed Bascope. "[Pearson] was powerful. She was very powerful," he said. Naquin, a high school coach since 1980, added that Pearson was a super all-around gymnast, and a very good tumbler.
Pearson's coach at the elite level at Karons Club, Debbie Walk, also said Pearson was a powerful gymnast. "I haven't seen anyone as powerful as she was at that time," said Walk. She said elite gymnastics was hard on the body and required a lot of time, so in 1999 Pearson decided to give up the elite competition and join the Edison team. "It was a really hard decision for her," said Walk.
Pearson went on to Towson University, but, according to an official at the Towson athletic department, was only there for a semester. This past high school season, Pearson was an assistant coach with Thomas Jefferson High School.
MEANWHILE, HIGH SCHOOL gymnastics continues to evolve. Cooper, a head coach in the area since 1988, and a former high school gymnast at Annandale High School, said gymnastics has changed since he started coaching. He said the equipment used in gymnastics is getting better, and because of that, athletes are performing tougher routines. For example, he said, the introduction of spring floors allowed gymnasts to incorporate more flips into their routines. He also added that gymnasts today have more opportunities to practice outside of high school. He said there are more clubs, allowing the athletes to practice year-round. Naquin said he is concerned about the shortage of qualified gymnastics coaches in Northern Virginia, which is responsible for him coaching two schools and Cooper coaching three. He hopes the sport can keep the momentum and not fold, like boys gymnastics did in the mid-1990's.
Michelle Pearson is 87 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.