NEW PALESTINE — Debbie Bruns balanced a fine line before the high school gymnastics season began this past November.
Promoted from assistant coach to head coach at New Palestine after Jenny Musselman stepped down last year, Bruns said she playfully recruited senior Emily Heighway every chance she could while trying not to be too overbearing.
Bruns knew Heighway’s experience would immediately bolster the team’s lineup, especially with the loss of two key seniors from 2016, Tara Morey and Annabelle Dockins.
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It was just a matter of Heighway wanting to return after a year hiatus from the school team.
“About once a month I’d see her in the hallway and say, ‘Hey, you doing high school?,’” Bruns recalled with a laugh. “I just kept asking her, and then she thought about it, and she finally said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”
While amusing then, and even now almost five-plus months later, what neither of them knew at the time was Heighway’s decision would ultimately bring the gymnast full circle.
A member of the New Palestine gymnastics team that placed sixth at the IHSAA state finals in 2015, Heighway was exclusively a club gymnast as a junior.
When she was a Dragon as a sophomore, she was a specialist, not necessarily by choice but instead by circumstance.
“She could only do bars, nothing else because she had ankle surgery before (the season),” Bruns explained. “I told her when she was a sophomore, ‘if you come in and do bars, we’ll get to state.’ She said OK, and we did.”
On Saturday afternoon, Heighway will once again return to the state meet at Ball State University’s Worthen Arena, where she will vie for a medal on the bars as an individual.
“It’s funny because she started on bars and she’s finishing on bars,” Bruns said. “She is very excited. Her mom pulled up all of the regional scores and she would be in the top 10 based on all of the regional scores. That really made her feel like she really does have a shot at placing.”
At the Columbus East Regional last Friday, Heighway was fourth overall in the event with a score of 9.300, advancing to the surprise of everyone.
Not necessarily her go-to apparatus, Heighway previously struggled with her bars routine most of the regular season, Bruns said, before sticking it the past two weeks. At the Connersville Sectional, Heighway was first on bars with a 9.025 en route to team and all-around championships.
More impressive however, her former club coach said, is the adversity Heighway’s had to overcome just to reach this point.
As a freshman, Heighway didn’t try out for her school team, instead opting to compete with her club squad at Gymnastics Unlimited. After gritting through her recovery from ankle surgery as a Dragon, she went back to club as a junior, but her season ended before it even began with a back injury.
“She had been out pretty consistently for 18 months,” Bruns said. “That’s a long time in gymnastics.”
Despite the layoff, Heighway regained her form after rejoining Bruns and her longtime club teammate Faith Land, a senior with the Dragons.
Bruns coached Heighway up through junior high, along with Land. The coach retired momentarily from instructing club, but transitioned quickly afterward with the Dragons as an assistant coach the past four years.
Her familiarity with Heighway’s talent is the main reason she asked her to join the 2015 team and why she said she believes the veteran has a chance to place this weekend in her prep finale.
“You can teach beam, floor and vault pretty quickly, but you can’t teach bars. It takes years,” Bruns said. “She nailed it on Friday (at regional). It was pretty consistent with what she did with sectional, but we really weren’t expecting that to be her top score.”
Just missing an advancement in the all-around by one-tenth of a point at regional, Heighway didn’t think state was a possibility at first after an uncharacteristic fall on beam.
“She kind of let her nerves get to her a little bit,” Bruns said. “Faith Land, during warmups, her foot slid off and she really injured herself. That kind of got to everyone a little bit.”
Land battled through the pain, refusing to scratch, which inspired Heighway as the Dragons placed fourth as a team, but some hesitation lingered.
“Seeing Faith compete helped everyone, and (Emily) did OK on everything else, but she never really recovered from that fall mentally. It just kept getting to her,” Bruns said.
Much like in the past, though, she’s since shaken it off, but she has been limited by a sinus infection since last Saturday. Unable to go all out at practice early in the week due to headaches, lightheadedness and dizzy spells, Heighway is determined to open it up with little time to spare.
“We’re looking to up her dismount and that would give her full bonus. That’s the big thing she’s trying to do this week,” Bruns said. “I told her being sick for three days, ‘it’s going to take you longer than that to get built back up unless you work hard and convince yourself this is my last week ever in a sport I’ve done for 14 years.’
“She’s pretty motivated to get things back to where she needs to be.”
What: IHSAA Gymnastics State Finals
Where: Ball State University’s Worthen Arena (1699 W. Bethel Ave., Muncie)
When: Saturday, 1 p.m. (opening ceremonies at 12:30 p.m.)
Parking: $5 all day in Worthen Arena lots