Members of the Austin gymnastics team work out above a foam pit on bar form at the YMCA. In recent years,  the gymnastics program has progressed by leaps and bounds to become one of the best in Minnesota. -- Eric Johnson/Austin Daily Herald
Members of the Austin gymnastics team work out above a foam pit on bar form at the YMCA. In recent years,
the gymnastics program has progressed by leaps and bounds to become one of the best in Minnesota. -- Eric Johnson/Austin Daily Herald

Austin Packers gymnastics: Finding ‘Ubuntu’

Published 3:55am Saturday, March 9, 2013

—This feature originally appeared in Progress 2013. Get a copy at the Austin Daily Herald office, 310 Second St. NE.

Watch the Packer gymnasts compete, and you’ll see why they’ve been so successful the past few years.

Gymnast Abby Bickler and Amy Hajek, a former Austin gymnast and now assistant coach, bring some family ties to the team: Bickler  is Hajek's niece.
Gymnast Abby Bickler and Amy Hajek, a former Austin gymnast and now assistant coach, bring some family ties to the team: Bickler
is Hajek’s niece.

No matter the event, no matter the competitor, no matter the result, you’re most likely to see a lot of support coming from the Austin bench.

It’s an attitude that didn’t change overnight, but after six years of building, the Packers have found “Ubuntu” — a South African phrase that signifies togetherness.

“Our concept of team goes beyond the five that happen to be [competing]. We have the same expectations for the No. 1 one girl to No. 12, and all 12 are training the same way,” Austin head coach Mark Raymond said. “It isn’t that the numbers are different or the kids are different. It’s that their attitude and work ethic has gotten better every year. We’ve learned what it means to encourage each other.”

When Raymond came back to coach the Packers six years ago, the program was on the chopping block, and the Packers were putting up scores of 128. By comparison, the Packers are now scoring 130s — on junior varsity.

The Austin varsity squad, which has taken fifth at the Class ‘A’ state meet two of the past three years and placed third this year.

Austin sophomore Abby Bickler, who has competed since seventh grade, has seen the program change. She also happens to be the niece of Austin assistant coach Amy (Bickler) Hajek, who was a three-time Class ‘AA’ state qualifier and state champion in the floor exercise in 2002.

Amy Hejek watches her neice Abby Bickler practice on the uneven parallel bars at the YMCA. There has been a history with the family as Amy was a Minnesota State Champion on the floor in 2002 for Austin.
Amy Hejek watches her neice Abby Bickler practice on the uneven parallel bars at the YMCA. There has been a history with the family as Amy was a Minnesota State Champion on the floor in 2002 for Austin.

Bickler doesn’t remember much of Hajek’s high school career with the Packers, but she recalls following her aunt’s gymnastics career at Winona State University.

“When I was little, I’d go hang out with her. We’d jump on the trampoline, and she’d teach me all these cool things,” Bickler said. “I kind of grew up around it and she taught me it. I started to love doing it, and I wanted to be just like her when I was little.”

Hajek remembers Bickler traveling to Winona to learn about gymnastics from her, and Hajek even flew to Washington, when Bickler lived there for a stint, to train with her.

In 2012, Bickler took fourth on the floor at state, and that wasn’t even the best performance by a Packer that day. Sela Fadness, a junior, won a title on the floor and third in all-around. This year, Fadness won the all-around individual title.

The Packer gymnastics team practices with  the YMCA youth gymnastics program at the Y.
The Packer gymnastics team practices with
the YMCA youth gymnastics program at the Y.

“It’s really cool to see how Abby has grown, and to be a part of that success is huge,” Hajek said. “They’ve just got a great group of girls. They all genuinely like gymnastics, and they’re in it together. They’re internally competitive, and it’s kind of like ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’”

By the time Bickler got to middle school, training for gymnastics had become second nature. With her in the gym at that young age were current Packers Carolyn Hackel, Abby Snater and Fadness. That squad gradually learned they needed to work as a team and not as individuals.

Austin's Cassidy Bawek spends some time on the balance beam during a January practice at the YMCA.
Austin’s Cassidy Bawek spends some time on the balance beam during a January practice at the YMCA.

“We put a lot of time and energy in encouraging each other and being happy for each other,” Raymond said. “Carolyn Hackel’s a hell of a gymnast, and there’s been nights where she’s thrown on JV. When she does, she stands on the sideline and cheers as loud as she can for the girl who’s in the spot that she was in two nights ago, knowing she can get it back. That attitude has helped them get better. They don’t get upset with each other.”

Bickler said that the gymnastics team has become like a second family. The group, which includes between 12 and 16 athletes on a given year, works together in the summer, and the girls support each other during the season.

“We went through a lot, and we’ve seen lots of different situations,” Bickler said. “As we’ve gotten better, the biggest difference is how we work together, and we’re excited when other people succeed instead of being jealous. We use it to push ourselves to get to that level.”

Like any good family, the Packers watch out for their younger “siblings,” as well. Austin had three newcomers on this year’s team, and all of them were taught to embrace the team mentality.

Raymond said once that attitude is installed, it’s very hard to lose it.

“Once you have a system, an attitude and a mentality, there’s no reason why it doesn’t transfer every year,” he said. “You graduate one or two, and you welcome one or two back on to the squad. Gymnastics will reward those that work really hard.”

The Packers’ closeness is probably the biggest motivating factor they have. The whole roster is constantly trying to reach its full potential as everyone trains together and everyone is expected to bring their best.

“Before it used to be that girls were waiting to be varsity girls when other girls graduated,” Raymond said. “That’s kind of gone away. Girls understand that they’ve got to challenge themselves and compete against their own best score. Everything else will take care of itself.”


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