The balance beam is Emma DeSantis’ favorite event in gymnastics. That’s no surprise, considering how she has been able to balance things in her life to achieve her goal of signing with the perennial national power University of Alabama.
For almost a year now, she’s been making the 1-hour, 45-minute trek to Pass Christian and back every day. Then there was rehab after ankle surgery in May. All while keeping up with her studies at South Jones High School, where she will graduate with honors as a Mississippi Scholar this school year.
“Emma has an amazing story and we look forward to helping her continue that journey and see her dreams come true,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said. “She is full of personality, loves our program and this university. Throughout her career, her passion for gymnastics remains strong and she is determined to make an impact on this program.”
Rolling for the Tide has been DeSantis’ goal almost as long as she can remember.
“It’s been my dream since I was 7,” she said between congratulatory hugs and friends and faculty taking photos with her in the South Jones library. “It has not been easy.”
But she’s almost made it look like it was. She is a six-time state champion — even though she stopped competing for almost three years. She won three state titles in Mississippi and three in Alabama, when her family moved to Birmingham. When they moved back to Laurel five years ago, when she was 12, she quit the sport.
“I was just burned out,” she said.
But after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, a chance encounter with gymnastics judge Lori Moore ignited the fire in her again. Moore told her that she missed seeing her talent and passion in the gym.
“A word of encouragement changed her life,” said Mandy DeSantis, Emma’s mother.
Moore was among the people gathered at South Jones for the signing last Wednesday, along with coach Cynthia Dedeaux of the Brook-lin Center in Pass Christian. She talked about her Bama-bound student’s work ethic and dedication, as did SJ Principal B.R. Jones and faculty members. All echoed her coach’s comments.
The Braves don’t have a gymnastics team, Jones pointed out, and DeSantis didn’t participate in cheerleading or dance because she wouldn’t have been able to give either her full attention because of her training schedule. But still, the library was packed with SJ students and teachers to share in the moment with her.
“That says something about how everyone here feels about her,” Jones said.
DeSantis took her official visit to Alabama earlier this month, but it wasn’t her first visit to the campus that she will call home for the next four years.
“I have been attending Alabama gymnastics camps since I was 7 years old and Tuscaloosa has always felt like home,” she said. “The family atmosphere, rich tradition, and high academic and athletic standards are all reasons I chose Alabama. I believe Alabama will not only provide me with the resources to succeed in gymnastics, but in life as well.”
Duckworth started talking seriously to DeSantis last year about joining the elite program. She signed on the dotted line last week to make it official. It made all of the sacrifice worth it, she said.
“It’s a balance with the social life and training,” she said. “My friends know that I have to miss out on some things. It’s worth it to get to live out my dream.”
DeSantis said she started walking early, then started “bouncing all over the place,” so her parents signed her up for tumbling at Laurel Gymnastics. From there, she began to get competitive in the sport and moved to Planet Gymnastics in Hattiesburg, and started bringing home medals.
“In the state of Mississippi, it’s not very big,” she said of gymnastics.
Then she moved to Birmingham, where there’s a lot more competition, and she kept winning titles. In addition to the total of six state championships, she was a five-time region qualifier and she had nine Top 15 finishes in region championships.
“The (balance) beam is my specialty and my favorite,” she said, “but it’s not most people’s favorite.”
She “rolled” her ankle in training and competitions so many times, she decided in May to get it surgically “cleaned out.” That has made her better than ever, she said.
“It made me mentally and physically stronger,” she said.
She will begin competing for Alabama in January 2020. The Crimson Tide team has won an NCAA-best 31 regional titles, nine Southeastern Conference championships and six NCAA titles, including back-to-back crowns in 2011 and 2012.
“She’s got her work cut out for her for the next four or five years,” said her father, Dr. Robert DeSantis. “None of this would be possible without God.”