Plum gymnast Natalia Burris competes at Eastern Nationals

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Saturday, May 6, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Natalia Burris was in select company over the weekend.

The Plum sophomore and a USA Gymnastics Level 9 competitor joined six others on a regional team that was to compete at the Eastern Nationals on Sunday in Kissimmee, Fla.

The seven selected for the Region 7 squad at the Level 9 Eastern Regional on April 23 in Virginia Beach came from a group of 54 all vying for the coveted spots. Burris took sixth in her Senior 5 age-group division.

The Region 7 team consists of eligible gymnasts from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, and the group was to compete against four other regions from the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest.

“I started to get to know the girls (on the region team), and it was pretty cool,” said Burris, who reunited with the group members when they arrived in Florida on Thursday for training and other prep work in advance of the competition.

“It was still sinking in for me that I made the (regional) team. It’s a great feeling that all the hard work paid off.”

Burris qualified for Regionals with a score better than 35 in the all-around early the regular season.

She started her championship season with a place finish at Level 9 states April 16 in Lancaster.

“States wasn’t my best meet, but it was a good wake-up call,” Burris said. “It showed me how much harder I needed to work.”

At nationals, gymnasts strive to help their region win a team title as well as go after individual accolades on the uneven bars, balance beam, vault and floor exercise.

“Nationals is a big thing, and I am happy to see Natalia put in the hard work and perform well to achieve this opportunity,” said Alex Babnov, one of Burris’ two trainers, along with Hannah Gentile, at her home base of Elegance Elite Gymnastics in Delmont.

“She had that individual mindset for states and Regionals, and that turned to a team focus as she represents a whole group of states. It’s pretty cool to see all of the top gymnasts in the region come together on the same team.”

Already an athlete in softball, Burris got her start in gymnastics about six years ago shortly before her 10th birthday.

“I saw other older gymnasts training and competing, and I thought it was pretty cool,” she said.

“I thought I could do it, so I watched gymnastic videos on YouTube, and kind of taught myself, at first. My dad built me a homemade bar and a beam, and I trained on them in the backyard.”

Burris said inspiration also came from watching U.S. Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas perform.

“It was just her elegance, her confidence and her overall presence out there, and I wanted to look like that and do the things she was doing,” Burris said.

Burris said the coronavirus pandemic was a challenging time as she hoped to maintain consistency in her training.

“I was able to keep up with my training and my conditioning throughout that, and we were able to eventually get into the gym,” Burris said. “It was just a matter of being careful and doing the things to stay healthy.”

Burris said strength training at the gym every Thursday has helped her feel stronger during her routines.

She also continues to monitor her body as injuries the past couple of years tried to derail her progress. It started with patellar tendonitis in her left knee, and then she dealt with right-knee issues and ailments to both ankles.

Burris won a floor exercise title at the 2021 USAG state championships at Center Elite in State College.

She then didn’t compete at all in the 2021-22 season but still trained and conditioned for a return to competitive gymnastics.

Burris returned this season with big goals, including making the regional team for nationals.

“She came right in and jumped into gymnastics right at Level 7, and normally girls start at Level 2,” Gentile said.

“She skipped all of those levels. It was all because of, basically, self teaching. I’ve been working with her ever since, and she has put in so much great work. Nationals is the goal of every Level 9 and 10 gymnast, and she is someone for others to follow as an example who want to accomplish that same goal.”

Burris feels she has turned the corner with her physical health, and attributes her faith in God to maintaining the focus during her recovery.

“It’s definitely been hard the past three years,” said Burris, who maintains balance through a busy schedule of school, homework, training and a job three days a week at Grand Slam Pizza in Plum.

“I’ve still been in the gym training, and I have received support from so many people. I am here, and I am grateful to still be able to do what I am doing. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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