NEW PALESTINE — As Annebelle Dockins accelerates down the runway, full speed toward the vault during practice inside New Palestine Elementary School, senior Tara Morey watches attentively.
Catapulting off the springboard and twisting through the air, Dockins just misses the landing on descent and falls gracefully backwards onto the plush pads surrounding the apparatus.
While walking back to the start for another go around, Dockins peers over at Morey and offers her a goofy expression. All her classmate can do is chuckle.
Just Dockins being “Belle,” as she’s referred to by her coaches and friends.
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“She’s a comedian,” Morey says with a broad smile. “She definitely brings out the fun in this team. She’s always messing around and making us laugh, but she always brings the seriousness, too. It brings out the best in all of us.”
Leading by example, Dockins has been a staple in the Dragons’ program throughout her career.
Acrobatic feats have been synonymous with Dockins since she learned to walk, but the team is what drives her more than conquering any degree of difficulty.
When asked about winning her first career sectional title last weekend at Connersville in floor exercise, she is quick to downplay her score of 9.050.
Instead she focuses on the 101.775 the Dragons tallied for runner-up honors compared to Connersville’s winning total of 102.225.
“After the sectional meet, I told her how close the meet was and she walked away crying. I stopped her and told her, ‘You still won floor,'” New Palestine head coach Jenny Musselman said. “She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care about winning something myself, I wanted to win as a team.’ That’s the type of person she is.”
It’s the way she’s always been from the first day, Musselman said. Her unselfishness is a direct link to the team’s family-anchored motto of “I got your back, you got mine.”
Yet, it wasn’t until a little more than a year ago when Dockins truly understood the full extent of those words. As she describes it now, that’s when her world literally turned upside down.
Much like any other practice, Dockins was feverishly working on her floor routine, trying to execute a round-off back handspring full and a half. Unable to stick the maneuver, she went for it one more time.
She landed it at last, but something felt wrong as her 5-foot-10 frame spiked into the mat.
“At first, I thought, ‘OK, this is just a pop’ until I slowly started going to the ground,” she recalled. “I then thought, ‘This is it. I’m done.'”
She tore her right anterior cruciate ligament. In denial initially, Dockins attempted to compete in the team’s first meet of the 2014-15 season a few days later despite the injury, but as she warmed up, the knee completely crumbled, along with her spirit.
“It was devastating. It completely destroyed me,” Dockins said. “It was one of the worst things I could have imagined happening to me. It drove me into the ground.”
A state qualifier as a long jumper in track, on the cheer team and as a gymnast, her junior season ended before it even began.
Projected to be the Dragons’ No. 3 all-around competitor in what turned into the program’s most successful campaign in school history, Dockins was forced to play spectator.
After the official diagnosis, surgery followed in early February, then came six weeks without walking and an immobilizing leg brace along with physical therapy.
The physical pain from learning how to walk again, however, hardly compared to the emotional roller coaster Dockins rode while the team won its second sectional title in three years and finished runner-up at regional.
In despair, Dockins found support from her teammates and especially Musselman, a 2002 New Palestine graduate.
“I tore my ACL my junior year (in my left knee) just like she did. I tore mine at the end of December. She got hurt in the beginning of January. I ran track after gymnastics just like she does. The time frame was almost the same,” Musselman said. “I used to ask, ‘why did God do this to me my junior year? I could have been so good my senior year.’ After she got hurt, I knew exactly why.
“We went through that together and bonded over it.”
Dockins’ relationship with her teammates grew just as strong, but no more so than with Morey.
As a freshman, Dockins conceded her spot on the uneven bars to then senior Julie Hilton, so all five of the team’s seniors could compete at state together, which led to an eighth-place finish for the squad.
It was the right thing to do, said Dockins, who credits those seniors for her work ethic and leadership skills.
Last March, Morey decided to return the favor prior to the state meet at Ball State University’s Worthen Arena where the Dragons placed sixth as a team.
Though just joining the group as a junior, Morey surrendered her spot on bars to Dockins, a deed which energized her wounded teammate.
“I didn’t know karma would come back so quickly,” Dockins said.
Twirling around with a smile on her face and her leg brace affixed securely during the event, Dockins scored a 5.75, the lowest point total of any competitor, but a massive victory in her road to recovery.
“She’s my best friend. I love her to death. We’ve competed together since we were 7 years old,” Morey said. “I’d do anything for her, and I know she’d do the same thing for me. Giving up my spot was definitely worth it to see her have fun again.
“She even winked at the judges during her routine. It brought a couple of tears along with some laughter.”
It also motivated Dockins to rehab relentlessly during the offseason in anticipation of her senior year, though the final hurdle proved the most difficult.
Able to grind through the agony of reintroducing her body to the toll of gymnastics, Dockins was timid once she returned.
“It took her a little while to get over the mental deficit. When you get hurt so badly, you get scared even when you’re healthy,” Musselman said. “She was afraid of getting hurt again, so it took her some time at the beginning of the year to get over those fears.
“I had to help push her because she didn’t know anybody else that’s been through it.”
In the Dragons’ early meets, Dockins focused on regaining her form and broke through with an all-around championship at the Rushville Invitational on Feb. 8 as the team won the six-team event.
On Senior Night against Shelbyville last week, however, she finally put her concerns behind her by winning four events, including the all-around.
Her highlight performance unfolded on floor where she scored a 9.0 and won a personal battle.
“I never really came back until senior night doing the skill that took me down,” she said. “It was incredible. I stood it up, staring my coach right in the face. It was the greatest feeling I ever felt. It was pretty intense.
“I wasn’t doing all of this for myself, I was doing it for others, my coach and my teammates.”
And she’s doing it with her trademark smile.
“If it wasn’t for coach and my teammates, I honestly don’t know where I would be today,” Dockins said. “They brought me back to my feet. I wouldn’t be in this gym right now, getting ready to compete at regional.”
On Saturday when the Dragons head to the Columbus East Regional at 11 a.m., the goal remains the same. Every point and individual success is for the team — family.
“This is a team sport, not an individual sport. We wouldn’t have the scores we’ve had unless we had each other pushing one another,” Dockins said. “Me and Tara are going to push hard. We want to make it to state, the both of us. I know she will and I will. We just have to make it happen.”
Name: Annebelle Dockins
School: New Palestine
Sports: Gymnastics, Cheer, Track & Field
Parents: Beth Berry, Jeff Dockins
Siblings: Maxwell Dockins (24), Oliver Dockins (19)
Club Team: Gymnastics Unlimited
Career Highlights: Multiple state qualifier in cheer, track (long jump) and gymnastics; sectional champion (floor exercise, 2016); projected to earn 11 varsity letters in her career.
Favorite Hobby: Love coaching at Gymnastics Unlimited when not working out. “I’m addicted to gymnastics. I love coaching if I can’t do it.”
College Future: “I’m attending Indiana University”
Pre-Meet Ritual: “I always need to chew gum. … Extra spearmint.”
My role model is: Kylie Zehner and Kate Fee, “They always pushed me.”
What: Columbus East Regional
When: Saturday, March 5, 2016
Time: 11 a.m.
Who: Advancing teams and individuals from Connersville, Columbus East Sectionals
Advancement: The top six place winners in each event advance to the state finals; the top six place winners in the all-around competition advance to the state finals; the top three teams compiling the highest number of points advance as a complete team to the state finals.