Back home again

Photo by Jim PetersMichigan City senior Krista Bendix is the lone gymnast returning to the team from last season. The Wolves have just three girls with prior experience in the sport on a team of 12 for first-year coach Ashley Koza, a former City gymnastics standout. 

MICHIGAN CITY — For Ashley Koza, this is personal.

Michigan City's last great gymnast, a product of the Platinum gym in which she now coaches, has taken on the task of turning around the program, and has jumped into the challenge head first.

"I was born and raised a Platinum girl," Koza said during Monday's practice. "I've been here since the start of the gym. My mom, (Amy), and my friend's mom, (Clara Vinzant), actually convinced Gillian (Kieft) to open the gym. I love it. It's why I came back. I just really wanted to get back into it. I couldn't get away from it."

A 2015 MC graduate, Koza qualified for state as a sophomore on uneven bars and again as a senior on vault. She won the Level 8 vault state title her senior year.

"I kind of remember her in the gym. I was really little," Wolves freshman Makalinn Jenks said. "She was really good. I really looked up to her. With her being coach, I love it. She's like a big sister."

Before graduating from Indiana University in May 2019, Koza spent her second semester student teaching at Chesterton. She was an assistant with the state-champion Trojans gymnastics team and Dawn Matthys, who was one of Koza's club coaches growing up. She accepted a position at Michigan City to teach Spanish and with the gymnastics job open once again, the wheels began to turn.

"When I found out I was getting the job here, I reached out to Becca (Jensen) -- we were on the same team together -- and I ran the idea by her of trying to rebuild the program with her," Koza said. "She jumped on board instantly, and it's been great. I plan on sticking around as long as I can."

Koza hopes to bring some stability to the team, which has had four coaches in five seasons.

"One of the hardest things I had to deal with as a gymnast was my senior year, Gillian moved to Florida," she said. "She'd been my coach my entire life. She comes back quite a bit. She's helping me try to get everything situated as a new coach."

The return of 'Senorita' Koza, as Kylie Harrison called her coach, was a big reason the City junior returned to the sport after two years away.

"She used to be one of my idols when I was competing here," Harrison said. "That definitely persuaded me to start doing it again."

Senior Krista Bendix has been through her share of coaches at the high school and in club, so she's happy to have Koza in her corner for her final season.

"I knew her when I was little," Bendix said. "I'd come here and she'd be practicing. I'd go to meets and watch her all the time, and now she's my teacher and my coach."

Bendix is the only returning senior on the team. She, Harrison and Jenks are the sole experienced gymnasts on a team of 12 that includes a large group of senior rookies.

"My first goal was just getting the numbers back," Koza said. "To be honest, I thought we'd have maybe two, three girls. Being in the high school helped me recruit, get the word out. The first few years, I'm focusing on getting the numbers up, getting girls some more experience. I feel gymnastics is probably one of the most difficult sports to jump into. You get one chance. You miss a skill, it's over. You hit it or you miss it. That flexibility is built when you're younger, that muscle memory, building all the muscles other sports don't necessarily use. There are so many little techniques you have to learn beforehand."

While the bar, figuratively speaking, is lower right now at Michigan City, the greater amount of potential is what intrigues Koza.

"It's incredible to me, how far they've come so far," she said. "We have a full floor lineup and a full vault lineup. It's absolutely incredible, how much joy, how much pride I have in these girls for trying so hard. I told them, 'I don't want you to be perfect by the first meet, then you don't have anything to strive for.' I'd rather have them be horrible the first meet, then continue working, improving. Some of them, especially the more advanced girls, struggle with that. Every day, I learn something new. It's just getting to know each individual athlete, what works for them."

Koza knows better than anyone in the room the importance of a strong body and strong mind in the sport, a chemistry of skills that only comes with logging long hours.

"Gymnastics is one of the most mental sports there is," she said. "Gymnastics is rough on the body, rough on the mind. We have a few gymnasts who can do so many more things, but because they have a mental block, they can't excel there yet. It was scary for me as an experienced gymnast. I was doing 17 years, and that's something I struggled with, so it's something I can help them with. I always tell them the first one is the hardest. You have that moment of, I survived. You have to overcome that fear, and once you do that, it's easier to move on and fix the technicalities."

As much as she enjoys the progress she sees on a daily basis, Koza particularly revels in the camaraderie that is emerging on the team, none of whom were teammates even a year ago.

"I love the idea of being focused on one's self -- gymnastics can be a very individual sport -- but I think the biggest thing is it's more about the team. High school sports is more like that anyway," she said. "Many of our spectators pulled me aside and said your team just seems so fun, they're so supportive of each other. They were full on cheering for the girls from Merrillville. I've never seen a group of girls who want success for their teammates as this one. That's something you can't teach. I consider myself so lucky to be able to have a team that supportive. I'd rather have a team not scoring as well but working together and is positive than a wonderful team that can't get along."

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