Top gymnast learns new skills, contemplates Olympic dreams

Amanda Collen

It’s a countdown. Each passing moment brings freshman gymnast Cooper Winiger closer to attempting a Rudi Out, a skill he has never tried before. To say it’s difficult would be an understatement. A double front flip and 180 degree twist. Any miscue could shatter a bone or put him out of actions for months.

Cooper jumps on the trampoline, increasing his height each time. The other gymnasts in his gym, the Palaestra, begin to gather around. They realize the magnitude of what Cooper is about to do. Time passes and tension builds. Eyes watch him intently. Cooper puts his bare arms by his sides. He’s about to go for it. 3. 2. 1. But instead of taking that leap of faith, he stops.

A look of uneasiness covers him. His trim, muscular body can do the skill, but his mind won’t let him try. Maybe it’s the possibility of injury that stops him, a memory of the concussion he sustained last week. Maybe its just the fear of trying something new. The fear of the unknown.

But Cooper must get past it. He always does. He won’t let his fear define him. Once again, he begins to jump. His teammates cheer him on. He works to push through this mental block. As Winiger to attempt the Rudi Out for a second time, fear flees his mind. Here he goes again. 3. 2. 1.

In a rush of motion, he begins to twirl through the air, a blur to the naked eye. In an instant it is over. His audience explodes with applause. Cooper once again stands on the black, rectangular trampoline. Only now, he is beaming.

It’s this type of dedication and determination that led Cooper to be the back-to-back national champion for his age group. In 2009, he took gold in mini trampoline in San Jose, and the following year took gold in trampoline in Virginia Beach. Cooper is a level 10 gymnast, the highest rank before the junior Olympic level. He competes in three events- trampoline, tumbling and mini trampoline.

Although he is unsure whether he will try out for the Olympic squad, Cooper said he at least plans to continue gymnastics for the next few years. The olympics might only be the next step for Cooper. But there is no mistaking. It is an Olympic-sized step. He said that to make the Olympic team he would have to compete in elite meet. He would have to beat out other top gymnasts in the country to earn a spot.

“It’s kind of hard because there are so many people trying out,” Winiger said. “To go to the Olympics I would have to get bigger skills, more twisting and flipping.”

Cooper is no stranger to the gymnastics world. He became interested in the sport when he was just 7. His dad, Scott Winiger, can still remember when Cooper did his first back handspring. The family was outside playing in the yard when his dad issued him a challenge.

“I said, ‘If I can do one, will you do one?” Scott said. “I did one in the front yard and he did one right after that. The next thing we knew he was doing four and then seven, and on and on and on.”

However, gymnastics isn’t all gold and glory for Cooper. There are many challenges that come with it. His mother, Viki Winiger, said that school can be an obstacle for her son, given the workload of both his sport and his studies. Cooper is in all pre-AP classes, except for Biology. He usually doesn’t get home until around 9:00 p.m. and doesn’t start his homework until around 10:00 p.m.

“Maintaining focus for school is really the hardest thing,” Viki said. “We battle it daily. One bad grade leads to studying like crazy for the rest of the week.”

Cooper practices four days and at least 15 hours a week and even more when it is close to a competition. Since Cooper’s sister is a competitive dancer, the Winigers are constantly going in different directions.  Since they don’t get to see each other that much, Viki said it makes them value their time together even more.

“We’ll eat maybe two meals together a week, and that’s on a good week,” Viki said. “It makes our time together precious.”

Cooper has also had to sacrifice other hobbies to stay in gymnastics. For example, Cooper played in the clarinet in the middle school band, along with competing in gymnastics. However, he said he had to make a tough decision this year because both activities are extremely time consuming in high school.

“I was going to be in marching band this year, but I would have had to miss three to four months of gym,” Cooper said. “You can’t do that unless you want to start over. I decided to go with gymnastics instead.”

               Although it requires sacrifices of time and money, Cooper said it is all worth it. He said that the people that surround him, like teammates and coaches, are what keep him in the sport. They are the people that make the sport fun, even when it is difficult. It’s those moments, like being encouraged while attempting the Rudi Out at practice, that make him cherish the relationships and friendships he has made over the years.

“The sport is hard,” Cooper said. “If I didn’t have people to motivate me, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t in gymnastics.”