By Eric Bentzinger
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Iowa State freshman gymnast Sara Townsend knew cracking the Cyclone lineups would be a tall task, especially considering she was one of six newcomers on an ISU team that graduated three seniors. Also, Townsend is 5-9, five inches taller than her closest teammate.
In many sports height is a perceived advantage, but in gymnastics it can create some added hurdles to overcome. Because gymnasts are often trying to turn over as fast as possible while fighting gravity, having more length can be a hindrance. Take, for example, the uneven parallel bars. All gymnasts must work tirelessly to perfect their swinging so their legs do not hit the lower bar or the mat. For a taller gymnast like Townsend, she has less space to operate within to make sure her legs to do not make contact with the ground or low bar.
"Typically, we find that a taller gymnast has to work harder to do the same thing that a shorter gymnast does," Iowa State head coach Jay Ronayne said. "It is just plain harder, if you are almost a foot taller than the average gymnast, to jump up in the air and flip twice and land back on your feet. A taller gymnast simply has to get higher to accomplish the same thing as a shorter gymnast. The equipment can be a hindrance too. Sara's feet can drag on the mats when she swings bars, and we have the high bar up very high."
Townsend has not allowed her perceived height disadvantages to hold her back in the gymnastics arena. In her first collegiate meet, the Cyclone not only made three event lineups (vault, bars and floor), she excelled. Townsend tied for event titles on both vault and floor in the Cyclones' season-opening victory. In her second meet, Townsend improved her score on both vault and bars while equaling her floor score from her collegiate debut.
Ronayne said Townsend's work ethic and love of gymnastics has helped her become an important member of the Cyclone team.
"Sara has a great attitude about what it takes to be good as a taller gymnast," Ronayne said. "I don't think that she feels she is handicapped by her height in this sport. I think she approaches it as if she is 'a gymnast' and not 'a tall gymnast'. She just wants to be a successful collegiate gymnast and will do what it takes to realize that goal."
Townsend is not alone in that she does not want to be perceived as a tall gymnast but instead a gymnast. However, Ronayne admits there can be a misperception in the gymnastics community about taller gymnasts during the recruiting process.
"It happens all the time where taller gymnasts are overlooked," Ronayne said. "Most college coaches are looking for that ideal little gymnast who is about 5-feet tall. When I was initially recruiting Sara, I kept getting surprised by the things she did even though she was easily a head taller than everyone else around her."Townsend has certainly rewarded Ronayne for not overlooking her in the recruiting process, and based on her height and gymnastics skill, it would have been hard to do that anyway.