Tag Archives: Gymnastics

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With the Greatest of Ease

screen-shot-2017-12-28-at-4-22-52-pmLouisville’s Terri Kendall is an aerialist, flying above the crowd on silks or a rope. Even at 50, after an injury, she’s not letting her dream get away. It took her too long to get there. Thanks to

Terri Kendall turned 50 last year – which is kind of astounding, given how active and powerful an athlete the Louisville native still is.

But that’s not what this story is about.

Like many people who reach that age, Kendall discovered that 50 is just the number that follows 49.

What’s more pertinent, though, is the story of Kendall’s athletic life at the formation, when she was a preteen in suburban Chicago and showing an aptitude for soccer, softball, football, tumbling.

“I started playing softball at 11 and field hockey at 14, and I sort of really never stopped.”

It was another cultural era, however, and it nearly strangled her promising career.

It was the mid-to-late 1970s. There weren’t a lot of programs available for girl athletes. And not a lot of parents looking to encourage their daughters into the sports world.

“My parents wanted me to play music,” she said, “but I was a jock. I ran as fast as the guys, I played as well as the guys.

“I kept coming home, saying I want to try ice skating, I want to try gymnastics,” Kendall said. If any of her three brothers had shown any extraordinary athletic promise (they didn’t), “I’m sure my parents would have been all in.”

She recalled begging her parents for gymnastics lessons. (“I was super-acrobatic.”) They wouldn’t pay the $13 an hour. “But they were willing to pay $650 for my brother to learn karate.”

She said the minute her brothers wanted to play baseball, “they signed us all up – me for softball.”

A DIFFERENT TIME

This is not to shame Kendall’s parents. It was just a different time, not long after Title IX had been passed, and the culture was slow to change.

Boys = sports. Girls = music lessons.

“I tell the girls I coach (now), ‘You don’t know how lucky you are,’ ” said Kendall, who coached field hockey for 10 years in the Louisville school system, five of those years at DuPont Manual High School. “I say to them, ‘You have parents who drive you to practice. I used to have to take a bus or ride my bicycle or walk. You have parents who pay for you, support you.’ They pay hundreds of dollars for their daughters to play.”

Even after excelling in high school sports, despite attending three schools in three different states, Kendall ended up enrolling at Western State Connecticut University, a Division III school with no athletic scholarships.

And then she dabbled, finding every possible outlet for her abilities – softball, field hockey, soccer, football, running races, competing in triathlons, mountain biking, road biking, men’s lacrosse, men’s ice hockey, roller hockey – while turning her psychology degree into a career as a school psychologist with Jefferson County Public Schools.

She played well into her 40s, until her knees began to give out, as knees do when you’ve been as active as Kendall was for so many years.

THE CIRCUS COMES TO TOWN

And then it was February 2010, she recalled. “A friend of mine, who was already doing aerials, called me. ‘Hey, we’re doing a circus workshop, want to come?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not, I’ll give it a try.’ ”

She had always been a climber. “My mom said they couldn’t hide Christmas presents, because I’d find them.”

So, she scrambled up the rope, 15 or 20 feet in the air, and her life instantly changed.

“I looked out across the theater and I was happier than I’d ever been in my life. I thought I wanted to do this forever.”

She was performing by July.

Years of playing in front of crowds gave her the necessary stage presence. And she had the upper-body strength, which she said is usually a struggle for women. But she acknowledged that it took her five years to get polished.

“I cringe at early videos of myself. I was a jock, I never had dancing or gymnastics or cheerleading. I’m not a natural toe-pointer. I wasn’t used to straightening my knees. It took me awhile to perfect my eye gaze. I had to work very hard on how to pose with my hands. I’d always thrown balls with my hands, or held sticks. My hand changes were choppy and clunky.

“I had to transition from a jock to a graceful performer.”

Transition completed. She had become a major, accomplished, in-demand aerialist. And happy, fulfilled, satisfied. “If I’m grounded for a week, I feel crappy. I just want to be up in the air.”

Which was why the events of last year almost did her in.

SHOULDER AND OLDER

“I hurt myself overtraining a couple of tricks, and tore my labrum [cartilage that helps keep the ball of the shoulder socket in place].

“They call it an ‘overuse injury,’ ” she explained. “I had pain, but I kept pounding. I should have listened to my body.”

Surgery was contemplated. She hesitated. Would she recover enough to ever perform again? After all, she was about to turn 50.

“I had reached an advanced aerial stage,” she said, “one that I had been striving for, for years. So, the idea of taking a huge step back, or not coming back at all, was a lot to think about.

“I had a lot of questions, and a lot of tears. I hate to say it, but I don’t know who I am when I’m not being athletic.”

She said she read a lot of social media posts on the procedure. “There were many negative blogs. But there was one from a woman, a fanatical rock climber who trained, ate and was fit like me. She raved about the result, and that convinced me it would be okay.”

Dr. Ryan Krupp of Norton Orthopedic Specialists, performed a procedure called a bicep tenodesis, a procedure that involves cutting the biceps tendon from its attachment at the labrum and then reattaching it below that previous attachment site along the humerus bone

DARK TIME, DARK THOUGHTS

Medically, thanks to Dr. Krupp, the procedure was a success.

But emotionally, “I was a mess,” Kendall said. “It was a dark time. When you’re used to training hard and frequently, it’s natural that you’re going to drop when you stop. And I dropped really hard. I had thoughts I don’t normally have.”

She admitted now that she questioned what her usefulness was anymore and even not wanting to be alive.

“That’s not who I am. I’m a more positive person than that,” she recalled.

Kendall started taking a supplement to boost her serotonin – “an amino acid, not an antidepressant”screen-shot-2017-12-28-at-4-24-37-pm

– and felt better after a week and a half. “I stayed on it until I started training, to get my biochemistry back to normal.”

Physically, Kendall still had some pain and range-of-motion issues, but two months of stretching and working out four times a day, plus physical therapy twice a week, have helped restore the future for her.

However, there’s still that magic number to deal with.

“When I turned 49, I woke up bawling. This year, I sort of laughed. Fifty? No way! The fact is, aerialists around the country perform into their 60s.”

Today, Kendall is grateful for where she is and what she has. She’ll retire from JCPS in five years. Her two daughters are doing great; the older one is getting married this year, and money’s not tight like it so often was.

Kendall has her own company, XALT, and also works with Louisville Turners Circus, Circus Mojo, Cirque Louis and Art After Dark Entertainment. She does fundraisers, company parties, picnics, festivals, and the occasional state or county fair.

Kendall also did a big ballroom party in a French Lick hotel this past New Year’s Eve.

THE TIMES, THEY HAVE A-CHANGED

Both of Kendall’s daughters showed some athletic ability. Kelsee, 24, played field hockey at Manual and just graduated from the University of Louisville. Nina, 14, plays soccer at Noe Middle School.

The girls are also getting into aerials. Is there a mother-daughter act in the future?

“Kelsee just started, so I’m not sure about her goals,” said Kendall. “She is working on building strength. She used to do gymnastics competitively, but that was over 10 years ago.”

However, she said, “Nina has been performing with me for a couple years and made really good money ¬¬– especially for a teen! We did some acts together, and we may do a duo act again someday – I hope.”

One thing is for sure. Terri Kendall is not going to let little things, like turning 50 and having shoulder surgery, deter her. She has worked too hard and fought too long for that moment when an audience gives her love – smiles and applauds, and appreciates her for what’s she’s doing up in the air. She’s not about to be grounded.

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Power Walk

By Steve Kaufman | Photos by Steve Squall

POWER WALK

“Youth gymnastics phenom becomes TV personality in a major market.”

It’s a variation on the Great American Dream.

Sports + media = celebrity

Except, the dream can too often be a Great American Nightmare. And for Whitney Harding to wake up from that nightmare before it consumed her life is a testament to her inner strength and her determination to succeed.

When you see Harding on WHAS11, you see an easy, conversational, story-telling tone to her reports, a sharp sense of humor and a knowledge of sports as impressive as anyone in her field.

LIFE IN TEXAS

And why not? She grew up in Texas, where sports – and talking about sports – is the first language. An athlete herself, she could swing a bat and throw a football with natural ability. Her professional bona fides are strong, too: a master’s degree from Northwestern University, which turns out journalists like Kentucky turns out NBA lottery picks; then a stint as sports director for a TV station in Midland, Texas, where her beats included “Friday Night Lights” high school football, and she covered the Texas Tech Red Raiders, Rangers, Astros, Spurs, Cowboys and Texans. And, since 2014, she’s been on WHAS11, where she’s a sports reporter/anchor covering ACC and SEC basketball, football and baseball. But Harding’s sports journey began well before that. In The Woodlands, a suburban community north of Houston, she was a promising eight-year-old gymnast trained at by Hall of Fame (and controversial) coach Béla Károlyi, who had previously sent Nadia Comăneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug and others on to Olympics gold and international fame. Zmeskal and Strug had been older gym mates of the young Harding. So what’s not to like? It sounds like Donna Reed and the Cleavers meet Happy Days. Except, the days weren’t always so happy.

LIFE OF A GYMNAST

Her athletic promise forced the eight-year-old Harding to give up some of her loves – like dance, and all those other sports she’d played around the neighborhood – and focus intensely on Olympic-level gymnastics training. “Of everything, I loved dance, especially ballet. But I picked gymnastics, I think, because I felt it was what I was expected to pick,” Harding said. “Looking back, I think, ‘Man, at eight years old, I was asked to make some really hard decisions.’ ” She began going to gymnastics practice two or three times a week at 6 a.m., before school, for two hours. Then she’d go back for three more hours in the evening. By the age of 11, in 1996, she was nationally ranked in the vault at the Junior Olympic level. Then came a series of happenstances that throw a whole shade on America’s youth-athletic obsession: injuries, which happen to a lot of young athletes, and puberty, which happens to everyone. “I had tons of injuries,” Harding said. “I’m still injured. When I was eight, I had a partially torn meniscus, and wore a brace for a little while. When I got older, it was my back. A lot of my activities were very back-intensive. I later learned there was a history of back problems in my family.” She was in pain. Tests showed nothing conclusive. She was advised to take some time off, “but I had a Russian coach (Alexander Alexandrov) at the time. They don’t understand taking time off. You tough it out! You suffer in silence. You don’t complain, you just work harder.” It turned out, her family later learned, she had two stress fractures. Plus “a whole mess of stuff wrong with my back.” Harding said the physician who read the tests came out and began talking to her mother. “He thought she was the patient. He said the pictures showed the back of somebody my mother’s age.”

LIFE INTRUDES

Also, at this time, Harding went through “the worst thing that could ever happen to a gymnast.” Puberty! “I had a growth spurt. I gained weight. I started doing all the things that happen to little girls when we go through puberty.” She said the coach would monitor her water intake, because too much water would make her heavier. And, as with many young girls who hear the words “too fat,” Harding developed an eating disorder. The coach dropped her, and she had to coach herself for an entire year for the Junior Olympic Nationals. “It showed me the power and strength that were within me,” she recalled. Then the minimum age rule for Olympic competitors was changed after the 1996 games in Atlanta, from 15 to 16. Which meant Harding, born in 1985, was now too young for the 2000 Olympics, in Sydney, and – unbelievable as it seems – approaching “too old” for the 2004 Olympics, in Athens. She’d be turning 19 that year. The Olympics hang over the heads of young athletes like Harding. She said the question she was always asked, and the one she hated, was, “Do you think you’ll make the Olympics?” (“All most people really know about gymnastics is the Olympics every four years,” she said.) “If I said ‘Yes,’ I’d feel like I was lying, because I never thought of myself as that good,” she said. “But if I said ‘No,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, so you’re not that good?’ It’s a loaded question, but people feel it’s OK to ask.”

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LIFE OF A COLLEGE ATHLETE

Setting aside her Olympics ambitions, Harding went to North Carolina State University on an athletic scholarship. “I felt if I didn’t participate in college, my entire career would be a failure.” But a new assistant coach was hired just before she enrolled. And she got injured again. “He didn’t like me. He saw me as a scholarship position being wasted. He never tried to help me. He put me down and made me feel small.” All her old demons came back. Her eating issue returned. Her weight swung wildly. Plus, there were new social issues to deal with. She was living in a dorm. And she’d never really dated before. “My junior year in high school, I went to the prom by myself.” Right after Christmas break of her freshman year, her mother came to Raleigh. “We went to her hotel room and I cried for almost 24 hours straight,” Harding said. “My mom later told me she was afraid I’d do something to myself.”

LIFE AFTER GYMNASTICS

The decision was hard, but it was also clear. After more than a decade, Harding gave up competitive gymnastics and transferred to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she pursued a journalism degree, then a master’s program at Northwestern. “I’d always wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, and when I left NC State, I applied to Rice University,” she recalled. “On the application, you’re supposed to circle all the subjects you’re interested in. When my parents looked at what I had circled, it was all liberal arts – no sciences. “I had remembered a teacher in high school recommending sports journalism to me. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like a bad idea!” Hardly. In 2013, she won an award from the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters – best specialty/beat reporting – for a series in Midland called “Girl Power.” In 2014, she came to Louisville. And she felt immediately at home. “I love school sports, and Louisville is one of the best local sports markets in the country. People here are passionate about their high school and college athletes.” Also, she said, “the variety of opportunities is remarkable. We were standing on the track for Oaks this year, drenched, cold, standing in the mud – and all the other things that are on a racetrack – and one of my colleagues said, ‘Isn’t this awesome? Look where we are, on the track at Churchill Downs for Oaks Day. In how many other markets in the country would we get to do this?’ ”

“I HAD TO COACH MYSELF FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR FOR THE JUNIOR OLYMPIC NATIONALS. IT SHOWED ME THE POWER AND STRENGTH T H AT WERE WITHIN ME. ” –Whitney Harding

cover2FAVORITE TEAM? LOUISVILLE OR KENTUCKY?

“Of course, as a journalist, I can’t declare a favorite,” Harding said. “But if I answered honestly, both fan bases would hate me. I’m from Texas, but my family is from Kansas. I grew up a Jayhawk fan. Rock Chalk!”

FAVORITE COLLEGE SPORT TO COVER?

“Generally, I’d say college basketball. But here, my favorite team to cover has been Louisville baseball. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed. Dan McDonnell is an incredible guy to work with. And the players are just great interviews, fun, lighthearted. It’s almost like they don’t take themselves too seriously, they know they’re playing a game.” She also likes the atmosphere at Jim Patterson Stadium. “You get to know the fans. The same ones show up for every game. I get to talk to them.”

FAVORITE LOUISVILLE EVENT SHE’S COVERED?

The PGA championship at Valhalla in 2014. “Being at Valhalla for a week was the best!” she said. “Golf is so soothing.”

FAVORITE STORY SHE’S DONE?

At the PGA, she interviewed Hilbert Potter. The Army veteran had lost a leg in the Persian Gulf War and is now working in physical therapy at Ft. Knox. “He was hired by the PGA to walk around and spot cell phone usage,” Harding said, “which is forbidden at the event. Military guys are hired because they have keen sight and intuition. So he walked the entire course – the long, hilly Valhalla course – on a prosthetic leg.”

FAVORITE INTERVIEWEE?

“We were all sad when Donovan Mitchell said he was entering the draft,” Harding said. “He was our clutch locker room interview after Louisville basketball games. I always knew I was going to get something great, truthful and honest. Just a terrific kid and a joy to cover.”

MEMORABLE TEAM?

“When I went to Nashville in 2015 to cover the SEC basketball tournament, I wasn’t sure what to expect from that Kentucky team,” she said. “They were undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the country. Would they be all full of themselves?” What she found was “a great bunch of kids.” “They’d been made into this larger-than-life thing, but Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Devon Booker, Tyler Ulis, they were just kids having fun. They didn’t drink their own Kool-Aid.” Towns was an All-American, first draft pick, now an NBA superstar, “but he’s probably the same kid today that he was then.”

THE COOLEST ASSIGNMENT?

“I was working at a cable news station in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of a residency program while I was at Northwestern,” she said. “And the World Cup was there that year (in 2010). My family is originally from Spain, and soccer is our passion. The Spanish team is usually eliminated early in the tournament. But that year, it won!”

MOST BENEFICIAL PART OF HER GYMNASTICS TRAINING?

“I’m conscientious, a perfectionist, a strong work ethic, good time-management skills, well-organized. And I’m competitive.”

LEAST BENEFICIAL?

“I’m forever conscious of my looks, my weight. And when the station gets emails from people commenting on how I look, it triggers all the old emotions.”

DO PEOPLE REALLY COMMENT ON HER LOOKS?

“I get comments on my lipstick color, my hair length, the things I wear. And I get nitpicked if I say just one thing wrong. You know, ‘A girl has no business covering sports.’ I don’t have a thin skin, I’m used to being criticized in the public eye. But it can get to you. “I answer every single e-mail. I’m always polite, but I also try to remind them that there’s a human being behind the TV personality, and I hope they know that.”

THE OTHER HUMAN BEING BEHIND THE TV PERSONALITY?

“My husband, Kyle Higaki. He’s a social media strategist. We met at a bar in Chicago while I was at Northwestern.” A mutual friend put them together. “We live in the Highlands. It reminds us of Chicago.” “He went to Ohio State. After the Buckeyes beat Northwestern in 2013, on a bad fourth-down call, we didn’t talk for more than three hours. That was the most intense our apartment has ever been.” “He’s truly special because he’s never threatened by my sports obsession or knowledge, or what I do for a living. On the contrary he loves it – and that’s so hard to find.” “I always said I would marry a lacrosse player, and I did.”

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Episode 1: Off The Page with Extol featuring Todd Sharp

What happens when you’re featured on the cover of a magazine and have no idea what people will say about you? Todd Sharp, the subject of Extol’s latest cover story, gets candid with us off the page. Trust us, you want to hear what he says. 

 There’s always more to the story. Find out more when you listen to Off The Page with Extol Magazine. 

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Extol’s Todd Sharp Cover Story | So Sharp

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Extol’s August/September Digital Edition