Stephanie Jennings not afraid to 'wow' the crowd

Sewanhaka District gymnast Stephanie Jennings poses for a

Sewanhaka District gymnast Stephanie Jennings poses for a portrait during team practice at New Hyde Park High School. (Dec. 19, 2012) (Credit: James Escher)

Stephanie Jennings takes flight off the runway in the state tournament and with a roundoff onto the springboard sends her body soaring onto the vaulting table. The back handspring is the next part of the Yurchenko equation, but her hands fall too close to the front. When it's time for her dismount, her head crashes against the vault's rounded-off tip and her body crumples to the ground.

The springboard was positioned too far from the vault; Jennings pops back up but is told to lay down by a scurrying medic. A group gathers around her supine form and she begins to cry.

"My head was hurting but I wanted to get back up and still compete," she said nearly a year later while sitting with her legs dangling off the edge of the vault. "Then the medic came over and she was like, no, and told me to lay down. I started crying because I didn't think it was that serious."

Jennings later was diagnosed with a concussion and a sprained neck. Scratched from the competition after her first event, she spent the rest of the day in the bleachers, enumerating all the ways she could still compete to Sewanhaka District coach Katie Mosie. Suffice to say, Jennings, now an Elmont sophomore competing in her fourth year with Sewanhaka, has some unfinished business. And no, she's not scared.

"I don't really like to think about that day but it makes me work harder," Jennings said. "I remember my first year on varsity, it was scary because the girls were on higher levels . . . but now it feels amazing to know that [I'm capable] of beating these people."

The Middle Island club gymnast is a second-year Level 9 and is one of the top names in Nassau gymnastics. In the state qualifier last season, she earned a 35.175 on the all-around, tied for second place with Bethpage's Alexis Fraher.

"[Jennings] has solid scores on every single event and even if she says she's better at one than the other, she's usually the highest on the team," Mosie said.

And then there's that fearlessness.

"She will go to a meet and she'll look at the beam and say to me, 'I think I'll do my back tuck today,' " Mosie said. "And I'll say, 'OK, Stef. Do you want me to stands there?' 'No.' "

Part of it might have to do with showmanship. Jennings was the first person in her club gym to nail a double back (they had a pizza party in celebration) and she has been training since the age of 7. She remembers going to practice and then going to school the next day excited to perform her tricks at recess.

"I started to like it right away," she said. "I would do these flips and everyone would crowd around me."

Back then, it was because they were in awe. Last season, it was due to concern. This season, Jennings plans to wow them again.

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