Day in the life: 'Gymnastics is a lifestyle, not a sport'
At three years old, an energetic Emma Slappey was in need of an outlet for release. Her mother was anxious to find a constructive activity to help Slappey burn some of that steam.
Slappey started in dance and after realizing her heart was actually in the gym, she switched to gymnastics. Slappey, redshirt freshman in fitness condition and performance, has made gymnastics a defining element of her life. When deciding where to train and compete, Auburn stood out for its honesty.
"There's a family atmosphere, and the coaches don't make the program out to be something that it isn't," Slappey said. "They said, 'This is how it's going to be, this is how hard you are going to work, this is how you will compete and this is the way we are.'"
Slappey said she was aware that Auburn's program was not the top program available, but she has faith they are moving toward that level. Being a part of a progressing and changing program is exactly what she wanted.
During recruiting, coaches came to Slappey's home gym and watched her practice to see exactly what she had to offer. Slappey did the same, touring the Auburn facilities and was thoroughly impressed.
The head coach, Jeff Graba, has enjoyed working with Slappey and vice versa. He remarked on her early success and quick nature when taking leadership on the predominately freshman and sophomore team.
"Emma is a phenomenally talented athlete, she is very smart and has fantastic drive and heart," Graba said. "She is filling in more as a leader now. We are kind of leaning on her to lead the team."
Slappey described her coaches as funny, lively, engaging and warm in comparison to other SEC coaches.
Graba is in charge of managing the team, recruiting, budgeting and the technical aspects of training. He said one of the main adjustments for new gymnasts is learning to compete as a team. Until beginning competition with Auburn, most of the girls have competed individually.
"We joke around and say, 'Gymnastics is a lifestyle not a sport,'" Graba said. "It's 24/7. These girls are living, breathing, eating gymnastics everyday till they retire."
Graba said time off from practice can be extremely detrimental, requiring constant practice and extreme dedication to the sport.
Time is exactly what Slappey gives to the sport she loves. Starting as early as six in the morning with treatment and rehab. Beginning with warm-ups as soon as classes are over, the team works until about 5 p.m.
The team has been on the road for the past few weeks, making the balance between school work and sport tricky. Slappey said it's simple to balance the two without getting behind if you stay focused and work while traveling.
"It's the first full week of school we are getting this week since school started," Slappey said. "It's difficult missing tests and makeup exams, but being on the road gives you a lot of time to study. You can get ahead, but you can't slack off if you know you are going to be away."
Despite the time strain, Slappey said the most taxing element of the sport is the stress on the body.
"I have a million things wrong with me, but you do it for the sport," Slappey said.
When performing, Slappey said she thinks as if it is just another practice. Staying calm and focused is crucial. Slappy said the coaches have trained them to stray from psyching themselves out.
"The meets are a lot of fun," Slappey said. "A lot of the engineers dress up and they call them the 'Gymnasties,' and they paint their bodies. We're doing flips and people find it funny even if we fall, it's just a fun atmosphere."
Slappey's favorite event is floor, as tumbling has always been her strong suit. When choosing music, she prefers dark Sci-Fi sounds.
"Floor tells a story and we all have our own characters that we get into," Slappey said.
For meets at home, the team arrives at 3 p.m. and begins warm-ups for the impending meet beginning at 7 p.m. Makeup and hair take about two hours, requiring much attention to details. Slappey said her makeup must be seen from the very top seats of the arena. The team spends time together braiding and fixing themselves up for the meet.
Slappey lives with one other gymnast and the girls spend time with each other outside of practice as well. The sport is a year-round commitment and the gym is always open. Slappey said when she heads home for breaks she continues to practice at her home gym.
In the end, the gymnasts are dedicated athletes in love with their sport. Slappey pointed out the rumor that gymnasts don't eat and personally debunked the claim.
"We are all really weird, we eat a lot and people think we don't eat at all," Slappey said. "We eat a lot and we work out a lot. We can afford one bad thing, it's not gonna kill us. I've always heard that assumption."