Plainview JFK's Victoria Vitale raises her arms at the conclusion...

Plainview JFK's Victoria Vitale raises her arms at the conclusion of her floor routine during a varsity gymnastics meet against South Side at Jamaica Avenue School. (Jan. 3, 2013) Credit: James Escher

Victoria Vitale tries not to think beyond individual steps -- the first one leading her down the vaulting runway, and then the one after that. Eventually, the Plainview JFK gymnast hits the springboard, and that's where it gets complicated: an accelerated step onto the bouncing mat, propelling her into the air.

Then there are no literal steps at all, just the twist of her body into a half or quarter roundoff as it hits the vaulting table. The hope is that strong arms and level shoulders take over, powering her backflip off the vault. Her feet need to land squarely facing the apparatus, with her arms pointed at the ceiling.

Four years ago, Vitale's Tsukahara vault announced her ascent as one of the best gymnasts in Nassau, helping earn her a spot at the state meet. Two years later, it tried to be her undoing.

The vault, named after Japanese male gymnast Mitsou Tsukahara and colloquially shortened to Tsuk, boasts a high difficulty and tends to be patently terrifying, Vitale said. She'd had trouble before, but in the grand tradition of things going wrong on big stages, Vitale officially lost her Tsuk at the state qualifier two years ago. She took a few steps forward and many more back that day, and repeated some variation of that attempt three times. Eventually, she was forced to scratch. Vitale called it her mental block and it followed her into a difficult junior year plagued by doubt, coach Debbie Rut said.

"I was always so afraid of it," Vitale said. "And after that meet, I was very disappointed that I'd let myself get to that point. With a lot of people watching and seeing you mess up, it's tough . . . but I've learned how to deal with my mental blocks, trying to get over them and trying to finish off the right way."

Now a senior, Vitale, who joined the varsity as a seventh- grader, has been one of the known names in Long Island gymnastics. A member of the state team since eighth grade, she first helped lead the dynasty at Plainview-Bethpage -- which won nine of 10 county championships before the team split in 2008 -- and consistently has been one of Rut's top scorers. It would be easy to say that she's accomplished everything she could, but Vitale is unsatisfied.

She wants to be an all-around on the state team this year, and yes, that road ikely will lead to using her Tsuk in competition. But most of all, Vitale said she wants to graduate knowing that she didn't let fear get the best of her. She plans to go to college locally, and since there are no Long Island college teams, gymnastics is likely off the table. She hopes to dance or cheer instead.

"I really wanted to come back, and every time I get scared, I also know that I want to finish off this season with no regrets," Vitale said. "I want to go back and look and say, I pushed myself and I did it. I ended my gymnastics career on a good note."

Vitale has proven herself perfectly capable of calibrating and contorting her body into the movements, but "it's 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental," Rut said. "Sometimes she takes two steps forward and three steps back, and sometimes she takes three steps forward and one step back, and that's better . . . I don't want to pressure her. I want her to have a great senior year, and if that means she can do it, she'll do it, and if that means she can't, she'll do her best."

Progress has been gradual but marked. Vitale took time off from the Tsuk and went back to handsprings after the state qualifier. She's moved on to doing Tsuks at her club gym, Hot Shots, and is gaining confidence. Her goal is to regain her pike -- a mid-difficulty dismount between a tuck (generally a starting value of 9.5) and a layout (a Level 10 vault and a rarity in high school).

"I took it from the beginning," Vitale said. "It'd gotten to the point where I was afraid to go for them, so I said, I'm going to start fresh. I've been doing them lately and I just have to keep going with it."

Her mother, Vicky, a former gymnast and a coach at Bethpage, said she was overjoyed at her daughter's decision to go toe-to-toe (or hand-to-table) with her fears. "If she gets her head on straight, vault is actually her best event," Vicky said.

All this means is plenty of practice, but not so much that the vault takes up more brain matter than it should. The gym at Hot Shots in Plainview has housed Vitale's Tsuk, including her Tsuk pike. She's told her mom she's planning to use it in competition, but tries not to look too far ahead.

"I try to take it one step at a time and I try not to think about the next move before I do it," Vitale said of performing the vault. "It's better when I don't think."

The poetry of her goal -- a state team spot founded on a vault, threatened by the vault and possibly redeemed by the vault -- isn't lost on her.

"I did have a lot of ups and downs and I think that's what motivated me this year," she said. "I'm proud of what I've done. I don't even have the words to describe what it's like when you do it, when you get over something."

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