As Mari Milender prepared for her first USA Gymnastics Level 9 meet last winter, she took a minute to soak it all in.
“I started in the USAG program late so I’ve always been behind some of the girls that were younger than me,” said Milender, a senior at Valley City High School. “The first Level 9 meet, I remember getting ready to step on the floor, I’m like ‘Wow. I’m with the big dogs now. I can say I’m a decent, good gymnast.’
“Just that realization is great after you’ve worked so hard for that, it feels so good.”
In just her second year of USAG Level 9 competition, Milender is hoping to end her competitive career at the Level 9 Western Nationals in May.
It’s a career that started shortly after she was born, has taken her all over the country and now entails 20 hours of training a week at TNT Kid’s Fitness and Gymnastics Academy in Fargo.
‘Upside down her whole life’
Even in her earliest years, Milender had a knack for gymnastics.
“I think she’s been upside down her whole life,” said her mother, Sue Milender, who watched Mari practice sitting up as a toddler.
By the time Mari was three, she was enrolled in a local gymnastics program and quickly found her passion.
“You start them off in little tumbling groups and they kind of excel that way,” Sue said. “In her case, she was always compelled to stay in the gym.”
Even Mari knew the talent was there.
“I just had a knack for it,” she said.
Mari kept with it but was saddled with a tough decision at age 12 —Valley City’s local USAG program was being dropped in favor of a different program.
“I knew I wanted to stay with the USAG program and I didn’t have a team or coach in Valley City,” Milender said. “My mom was like ‘the only other option you have is to travel. We’ll start out and see what it’s like and go from there.’”
So several times a week, Mari’s parents gave her the 60 mile drive each way to TNT in Fargo, which Mari said was a newer gym at the time.
Despite having three other children, Sue said it was never an inconvenience and that it “just worked.”
“As a parent you support what you kids love and want to do,” Sue said. “It was never a hardship on our family to get her there, so there was never any reason for us to say nope.”
Mari played volleyball and tried other sports, but the road always led to the gym.
When Mari started at TNT in the sixth grade, her progress had been hampered by constant coaching changes locally.
She entered the program as a Level 6 gymnast but she had peers who were Level 9, which she didn’t accomplish until she was a junior in high school.
“Coming up in Valley, I had new coaches every year. I didn’t get the right training going through,” Mari said.”Going to Fargo I started behind just because I had to relearn everything.”
But she kept with it and eventually made it to the Level 9 stage after a half-year at Level 6, a year and a half at Level 7 and two years at Level 8 before making 9 last year.
Whitney Beck, competitive program director and girls head coach at TNT said Mari’s rise has been largely because of her positive attitude.
“She is probably one of the hardest workers I’ve ever had the chance to coach,” Beck said. “She’s always up for the challenge. She truely loves it.”
Mari is one of the few gymnasts on the team to drive each day from Valley City, a drive longer than any other athletes at the gym.
For those reasons Mari serves as an informal captain on her team. She constantly helps push those who aren’t working hard, but is also the first one to help teammates who are struggling with something.
As a result, many of the younger athletes see Mari as a role model.
“They can see how hard she works and the general tenacity she has,” Beck said. “She may not be the best kid in the gym, but they want to be like her.”
‘All my life lessons’
The mathematics that go into Mari’s schedule are relatively simple.
Wake up, go to school until early afternoon, then by 4 p.m. she’s on the road to TNT for a four and a half hour practice.
When she gets back at roughly 9:30, the agenda includes homework and piano practice. When she gets the chance, she also helps coach locally at Valley Twisters Gymnastics.
Grueling, sure, but Mari sees the benefit.
“Gymnastics has taught me all my life lessons— leadership, discipline, hard work, time management. ,” she said. “Mentally it’s toughened me up and it’s gotten me to where I am today.”
It’s also given her a chance to compete all over that nation.
In February alone, TNT will be going to meets in Chicago and Orlando to compete with top gymnasts all over that nation. She’s hit other states, including Minnesota and Arizona, and, of course, there’s the chance she could go to Western Nationals in May in Boise, Idaho.
“Her world’s been really opened up by joining gymnastics,” Sue said. “She’s been able to experience a wide variety, not only in gymnastics, but in cities.”
Mari said that not only has it been fun to see the cities, but seeing competition has been motivational.
“When you’re confined to North Dakota, North Dakota doesn’t have much for gymnastics,” she said. “We’re really weak in that area. So being able to travel, we actually get to compete with some girls that have trained with Olympians, that have competed at the Olympic level. It’s so fun to be able to watch and see them and see where you rank with them.”
‘The final stretch’
The downside to this season is that it is likely Mari’s last competitively. After May she intends to keep with the sport as a coach.
She refers to the next few months as “the final stretch.”
“Quitting gymnastics is going to be different and I’m not going to know what to do with my time but I’m always going to be coaching,” Mari said. “I’ll always have a part in it.”
But in the final stretch lies the ultimate goal — making it to the USAG Level 9 Western Nationals in Boise.
With the goal comes plenty of motivation. Last year she made it to the state meet but missed a regional qualifying score by one tenth of a point.
“Hopefully this year with the summer (work) and through my training, I’ll make it through regionals no problem,” Mari said.
Helping is a “pact” between her and the other two Level 9 gymnasts at TNT to qualify for the national meet together. Whether or not she makes it will depend on her specific score at the qualifying meet.
Beck said the goal this year is to take Mari’s routines from last year refine them to increase scores.
“She’s definately capable of doing that with as hard of a worker as she is,” Beck said.
She’s also motivated by the loss of her father, Jeff, who passed away in 2009.
“She’s really been living the last two years for her dad,” Sue said. “He was very proud of her.
“He was there for her every minute of the day and helped her see beyond the walls of the gym.”
Whether she’ll make it to nationals, time will tell.
But for now, Mari’s focused on the enjoying the ride.
“I like the challenge,” she said. “I like feeling the pride in myself when I accomplish something. I like competing, I’m very competitive. I like being able to travel and I like being able to watch and see and learn.”