by Linda Hass, Published February 06, 2013
Kristina Kurkimilis, 21, is a petite powerhouse. At 5' tall, the Eastern Michigan University senior is among top returning vaulters for EMU's women's gymnastics team, recording a career-high 9.775 at the Mid-American Conference Championship last spring.
"I love the vault because it's the perfect combination of power and speed," says the exercise science major who is on track to receive a bachelor's degree this spring. Vault, one of four events in women's gymnastics, requires athletes to be explosive off the springboard, to soar in the air, and to "stick" their landings by not taking any extra steps, among maneuvers.
To maintain the necessary strength, "Kurk," as she is called, does several "Rocky-esque" exercises, including sit ups while hanging upside down from a bar, doing push-ups from the handstand position, and lifting weights as part of her 20-hours per week practice.
"Eastern has done a wonderful job of preparing our team physically and mentally," she says, adding that the coaching staff leads the 21-member team through exercises that simulate meet situations so they are ready to rock, tumble and roll at the championships.
"At MACs, the crowd is really loud and it can be confusing with multiple events going on at once," she says, referring to uneven bars, balance beam and floor-her other specialty. "So we need to stay focused."
Some would say Kurkimilis' sport, which involves soaring 8-9 feet in the air, is more like flying without wings, and that characterization is fine with her. "It helps if you're a little bit of a daredevil when it comes to being air born, because this sport defies gravity in many ways," she says chuckling.
It also helps if your first practice area was a couch as opposed to an unforgiving floor. "When I was 6 years old, I would always flip around on the couch doing cartwheels," says the energetic blond, adding that her mother decided to channel this urge by taking her to a gymnastics class.
"At first, I hated it," Kurkimilis says. "Then I realized, 'This is the place I can do all the fun stuff.' Ever since then, there's never been another sport for me."
In fact, it was her passion for the sport led the Eagleville, Penn., native to EMU. "During my first visit, the advisers' availability and enthusiasm for EMU really impressed me. Then, when I visited the team, they made me feel welcome. That sealed the deal for me," she says.
Gymnastics wasn't the only reason she applied to EMU, however. "My mom told me to pick a school that also had a strong academic reputation," says the biology minor. Kurkimilis, a fully-certified emergency medical technician, has applied to several medical programs.
While at EMU, she received academic recognition from the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches as a Scholastic All-American for finishing with above a 3.5 individual grade point average.
"Kristina is one of those people who is hard driven," says Head Women's Gymnastics Coach Steve Wilce. "She has goals and she wants to succeed in whatever she does, athletically and academically,"
"People sometimes joke about my sport," says Kurkimilis. "They ask, 'How is that going to help your career?' But it has... it's taught me discipline, goal setting and time management, among benefits. Those qualities, and my education at Eastern, will not only help me in my career, but in life."