By Caleb Barron
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Don't expect to get the best of Mary Burke. Friends. Societal norms. Injuries. The eclectic list of competitors and roadblocks that have fallen short of one-upping the senior all-arounder is worth writing home about.
To the general public, Burke comes across as the stereotypical stand-out athlete: Hard-working, humble, patient and constantly striving for perfection. Her teammates and coaches will tell you she is all of those things, but they'll also hint at another side of Burke; a side that will have potential adversaries thinking twice before starting a friendly rivalry with the spunky gymnast.
It was time for the Missouri women's gymnastics team to get serious. In Norman, Okla. for NCAA Regional competition, the Tigers were hoping to qualify for a return trip to Nationals. Head Coach Rob Drass was poised to start practice when Burke, his top all-around performer, approached him with bad news.
"I lost my hand grips," Burke said.
Drass tried to remain calm, although he admits he was on the brink of explosion, quickly thinking how his staff could get the grips FedExed in time for the next day's competition.
"[Hand grips] are really fitted to you," Drass said. "You can't use someone else's. It's like a football player forgetting their helmet. They can't even go on the field without it."
As Drass, Burke and the rest of the team huddled up to begin practice, they put their hands to the middle of the circle in spirited fashion. Instead of being greeted with the customary ‘Tigers!' after a count of three, Drass heard a sound sweeter than a Clarence Clemons saxophone solo: "April Fools!" Drass had been duped. The veteran Burke peacefully smiled. She knew the tension of the moment had been overcome.
Drass probably should've known better. As close as the team gets with each other, Drass says his gymnasts are like his daughters, he had to have known Burke has a history of practical jokes dating back to her freshman year in the college's residence halls.
Along with student coach/roommate Tara Foster, she "got back" at a friend on the school's baseball team while he was traveling on the road. Burke and Foster went into the player's room and wreaked havoc, covering his coset in saran wrap, pinning his clothes to the wall and setting an alarm clock underneath his bed. He returned to a room turned upside down, just another victim of Burke's incessant will to win.
She affords herself the opportunity to smile and joke because of her consistently outstanding level of performance. Following the prank on Drass at Regionals, Burke earned a 39.175 all-around score that put her in a tie for fourth place. She has been named Big 12 Gymnast of the Week six times. After setting a career-high on the vault against Nebraska in late January, she was named to CollegeSports360's Primetime Performers Honor Roll. Simply put, Burke is an exceptionally talented all-around athlete, perhaps due to her rejection of the typical blueprint to gymnastic success.
Much like the amateur basketball circuit, teenage gymnasts depend on experiences with club teams to prepare themselves for the next level. Unlike basketball, these gymnasts usually eschew high school competition. They almost never do both.
According to Burke, growing up in Inverness, Ill. proved to be an athletic advantage.
"High school gymnastics isn't really big in a lot of places," Burke said. "The state I'm from is probably the best."
The high-level of state competition allowed Burke to double up, competing for her high school from November to March, and then finishing up the season with her club team. This added exposure to the multiple atmospheres of gymnastics may have gave her a greater shot at success.
"It could be helpful because the structure of a high school meet is a lot like a college meet," Foster said. "It has a little more structure, and it's really loud. Sometimes club meets are more serious."
Unfortunately, all that time spent in the gym has a dark side. The probability of injury due to years of training and meets is a pitfall of the sport. Many gymnasts begin competing at three or four years old. By the time they reach college, wear and tear on their bodies is common.
"They are in the twilight of their careers," Drass said. "While they still may be getting better, their bodies are spent.
Burke is no exception to this rule. Last season, she competed with a stress fracture in her tibia. At the end of the season, rest allowed the strain to heal. It temporarily rectified the problem, only to fracture once again. A rod has been put in her leg that keeps Burke out of danger, but she still deals with pain.
In typical Burke fashion, she turned a negative into a positive by focusing on the mental aspect of the sport while she was unable to train. Burke and Drass agree her improved focus could elevate her performance and set an example for her team.
"When life threw her a whole bunch of curves, she just hit them," Drass said. "To know what she goes through everyday is a huge example for our team to say, ‘Look over there. Look what she is doing'."
Any expert is going to be good at endlessly repeating one task. Malcolm Gladwell argues in his national bestselling book, Outliers, that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve mastery of a skill. Burke has put forth a massive amount of effort to get to the top of her sport. In the meantime, she has became a habitual success story, even at the things she struggles with. By all accounts a subpar singer, Burke sang Take Me Out To The Ballgame at Wrigley Field in high school. She says she did well, even if an encore performance isn't scheduled.
"I'm think I'm going to retire [from singing] after that," Burke said. "1-0, I'm good."
Just another casualty to the success story that is Mary Burke.