Though they knew they'd play important roles in Maryland's 2013-2014 gymnastics season, Massachusetts senior Karen Tang and her sister Kathy, a sophomore, likely thought it would come in more of a supporting role behind the team's acknowledged stars All-Americans Katy Dodds and Stephanie Giameo. Then Dodds injured her achilles warming up before the meet in North Carolina and the season changed for the Terps as well as for Karen and Kathy.
Unable to shake off the emotion of seeing one of their leaders go down, the Terps registered one of their lowest scores of the season and dropped that meet at Carolina. Maryland then traveled to Durham to take on EAGL foe the New Hampshire Wildcats. With their parents watching them compete for the first time in their college careers, Karen won each of her three events while reaching career highs on the floor and vault. Kathy finished second to her sister on the vault and on the bars before suffering a deep bone bruise on her ankle and having Maryland Coach Brett Nelligan opt to hold her out of the final two events. The Terps fell short in the meet but posted their highest team score of the season building some momentum for Monday's meet against Towson, Pittsburgh, and George Washington.
Karen's athletic career got started on an ice rink rather than on a gym mat. Then a television broadcast spurred her into a different sort of action. "As a child I thought I could do anything," she told me. "We were watching television and gymnastics was on. Just being me I said, ‘Mom I can do that.' So I started doing cartwheels and forward rolls on the floor of our little apartment. Mom said, ‘You can't do that in here. It's not safe.' So the next week she enrolled me in Tim Daggett's Gold Medal Gymnastics. Karen was eight and was soon joined by her six year old sister, Kathy.
"I started out in figure skating, too," Kathy said. "Then I followed Karen into gymnastics. My mom made me choose one. I picked gymnastics."
Though they competed as throughout their club years, that competition has mellowed and refocused to benefit the team. Or so they say. But, when I asked Kathy about her injury, she said, "I'm feeling better. I'm hoping I can get back out there in another week or two." Karen immediately interjected, "She could have gone today." and when Karen misspoke a bit about their parents seeing them compete as collegians for the first time, Kathy was quick to supply the appropriate phrase.
Interestingly, the sisters almost didn't end up together. Karen told me, "I was really happy in my freshman and sophomore years and when Kathy was being recruited, I didn't think I wanted her to come here because I wanted to be my own individual and have my own little place so I kind of discouraged her. Toward the end of her recruitment, I changed my mind but then she wasn't sure she wanted to come."
Kathy said, "At first, I remember not wanting to come here because I didn't want to be with Karen either. Since we'd always been together, living together, going to the same school, on the same team, I wanted to forge my own identity. Then Karen started encouraging me and I got more interested. I took a few visits but even though I liked it, I was still hesitant about coming here. Then I thought why should I let something as silly as wanting to be away from Karen stop me from coming to an awesome school with great coaches, a great team and great gymnasts so I committed. Really I didn't think I'd like it as much as I do but I really love it. And really, it's natural being on the same team with my sister. We've been on the same team all my life.It'll be weird when she graduates and isn't on the team."
Karen and Kathy's parents met in China and emigrated to the U.S. as a young married couple. Their mother was a teacher in China but their father had to leave school early to support his family. However, like so many immigrants, the Tang's father had an entrepreneurial spirit and has been successfully running his own business for over twenty years. Said Kathy, "He's my role model. He works so hard in life that it inspires me to do the same."
"And I feel the same way, too," added Karen.
With Kathy cheering from the sideline, Maryland took their first rotation - as the home team always does - on the vault. Shannon Skochko got the Terps started with a solid 9.50. Freshman Emily Brauckmuller followed with a personal best 9.65. Though Karen couldn't quite match the 9.90 she registered at New Hampshire, she kept up the momentum for the Terps with her 9.75 score. Two more freshmen stepped into the rotation for the Terps and they too registered personal bests. Sarah Faller hit a 9.675 while the freshman from down under who her teammates call "Roo," Nikki Chung, posted a 9.80 that would be good enough for third place on the night. Stephanie Giameo went one better finishing second with a 9.825. At the end of the first rotation, the Terps sat in second place. Pitt opened the meet on the balance beam with a strong 48.850 giving them an advantage of .150 over the Terrapins.
The second rotation moved Pittsburgh to the floor and Maryland to the uneven bars. Nelligan sent two seniors to the apparatus first - Elizabeth Manzi and Jessie Black. They responded with solid routines of 9.65 and 9.70 respectively. Equally important they both stuck their landings which energized the squad. Chung, Faller and Giameo followed each one receiving identical 9.775 scores. Chung and Faller again registered personal bests and the score would land them in a four way tie for first with Jacqueline Lucci of Pitt. Karen Tang anchored the rotation with another solid performance scoring 9.725. Though Maryland equaled their season best score of 48.750 on the bars, Pitt was stronger still on their floor rotation scoring 48.950 widening the gap to .350.
Maryland's third rotation would take them to the always imposing balance beam - an event on which they had struggled mightily all season. This time, Nelligan let Faller lead off and the freshman responded with a 9.725 her third personal best of the night. Dani Kram followed with a respectable 9.65. Next up for Maryland was Ebony Walters. The normally reliable redshirt junior from Silver Spring had faltered on the event thus far this season. I asked Coach Nelligan if he had considered sitting Walters for a meet or two. "Sure, we talked about it. But in the end, if you want to put the meet on someone's shoulders, you want it to be your upper classmen. I trust her and she knows she has our support." Walters showed she deserved her coach's trust scoring 9.70. After Kram and Skochko hit solid routines, Giameo gave the Terps another strong effort with a 9.85. The team score of 48.750 was more than a full point higher than the Terps had scored previously this season. Meanwhile, Pitt faltered a bit on the vault and the Terps were back within .150 of the lead with one rotation remaining.
Pitt would finish on the uneven bars and Maryland would close the meet on the floor exercise as the home team always does. "I knew the scores on the bars were tight tonight so I knew they would have to do something really huge. If we just did our job on floor, I thought we could pass them," Nelligan said afterward. And the Terps did their job. Brauckmuller got the Terps off to a good start with a 9.775 and Dani Kram posted a personal best 9.725. Not to be outdone, Alex Zimmerman came through with a 9.825 also a personal best. Next up was Giameo whose controversial 9.775 would still prove enough for her to secure the all-around win for the meet. Tang, whose routine includes a maneuver she learned as a figure skater, registered a 9.875 and Walters, building on the momentum of her beam routine, scored a personal best 9.90 to tie for the top spot on the apparatus. The 49.150 was enough to vault the Terps to a total of 195.225 - their highest team score of the season - and for them to overtake the Panthers who finished with 194.900 points. George Washington finished third on the night at 193.825 while Towson's 188.700 placed them fourth.
After the meet, Nelligan talked about how proud he was of his team and of the gymnasts who stepped up to fill some of the vacated spots noting the work of Skochko and Black as well as his freshmen. Asked who was stepping in to fill the leadership void Nelligan said, "Stephanie Giameo. The way she talks to the team she sounds like a senior even though she's a junior. She gets them going and motivates them to do their best. And I think through her performances, Karen has been motivating the team. She's leading the team through her actions."
You can see Karen and the rest of her team in action Saturday February 15 at 2 pm when the Terps host Bowling Green and Yale.