The Next Level
Jan. 17, 2010
By Larry Watts
There was a time when Whitney Bencsko gave the Elite level a shot, thinking maybe if everything came together she would be competing for a berth on the Olympic gymnastics team some day. But that was back in her freshman year of high school and now Bencsko is just happy being one of the elite members of Penn State's rising program.
"I had competed at Level 10 during seventh and eighth grade and doing Elite, which would lead to more international competition, was just something I always wanted to do," the sophomore from Pompton Plains, N.J. says. "But I started having foot and ankle injuries and struggled some. Little things just kept adding up and it seemed like I was in the gym all the time.
"I was in the gym at 6:45 a.m. and then again at 2:30 p.m. Throw in school and homework and all there was left to do was eat and sleep. There was really no time for a social life."
So Bencsko made the decision to return to Level 10 for rest of her high school career. And who could argue with the results?
As a sophomore, she took first in the state in vault and floor exercise and second in uneven bars, balance beam and all-around before taking sixth on bars, 10th in vault and 12th in all-around at the Junior Olympic Nationals. As a junior, she was first in bars and all-around at the state level and placed ninth in vault at Nationals. Then she completed her high school career with a first on bars and second in vault, beam, floor and all-around in state before taking sixth on beam, eighth on vault and 14th in all-around at the national level.
Was it the right decision to go back to Level 10?
"Absolutely. I have no regrets," Bencsko says. "I gave the Elite level a shot, but I am happy how everything turned out. I still enjoyed gymnastics and was able to stand out. Once I got back to Level 10, there was time to go watch a TV show with friends and I got more out of a normal day. I felt like I had more freedom."
The scholarship offers came pouring in and Bencsko narrowed her choices down to Penn State, Nebraska and Arkansas.
"They were all around the same level of competition, where I could come in and be a contributor," she says. "People always say when you go to the right school you will know you belong. That was the way it was at Penn State -- the campus, the atmosphere, the coaches, the girls and the academics. It was everything I was looking for."
Bencsko proved to be a perfect fit right from the get-go. Together with Brandi Personett, who is now entering her senior year, the Nittany Lions had a solid 1-2 punch in the around-around competition. She tied for second with Personett on vault at the Big Ten Championships and was named second-team All-Big Ten. At the NCAA Championships, she tied for eighth in vault to earn first-team All-America accolades and also brought home second-team All-America honors in all-around.
"I knew it was possible, but going into Nationals I didn't know what to expect because it was so much different than competing in club gymnastics," she says. "The experience itself was unbelievable. Being there with the best girls in each event really put everything in perspective. It was something to be proud of and a real confidence booster.
"Vault and floor exercise have always been my strongest events because I tend to be more powerful than graceful. Last year I struggled in the beginning on vault. I was way off, but once I figured everything out it became one of my strongest events again."
The challenge Bencsko has put upon herself this year is to become more consistent in all of her events.
"I would consider my freshman year to have been successful, but I did have a few bumps early in the year, especially on bars," she says. "For some reason, with the transition to college, everything on bars was extremely inconsistent. It took me awhile to get back on track. I was all over the place and seemed to fall on nearly every routine. I wasn't textbook perfect, but by midseason I was generally happy."
According to the 5-foot-5 sophomore, Personett has been a big help in her adjustment to collegiate gymnastics.
"We have a good connection," she says. "We both get it and seem to be on the same page. We know what it takes to be successful and there is no easy way out.
"At the beginning of last year, when I was struggling with consistency and tired after working, she kept telling me it would all come together and the team believed in me. She knew I was doing everything I could and how much I wanted to contribute. Her confidence in me helped me regain confidence in myself. She kept telling me it would get easier and she was right."
Once a gymnast gets to this level, Bencsko says consistency and mental toughness become the biggest obstacles.
"There was a period last year when I would get off tack and I would have a hard time getting back on top of things," she says. "Things would start going downhill and even though I would try to turn it around, it didn't always work. It was just a matter of confidence. When I messed up, I should have been thinking it's no big deal and time to rebound.
"You have to stay mentally tough in this sport. Even if you're having a rough day, you have to know how to fix it because it won't fix itself."
Since Penn State competed in its first Big Ten Championships in 1992, Michigan has won the conference title 16 times. During that 18-year span, the Nittany Lions have yet to win their first crown and have been second nine times. Last year, the Wolverines won their third straight title with a score of 197.075 while Illinois (196.750) and Penn State (196.525) were both less than a point away.
"This is the year," Bencsko says confidently. "Michigan is going down! I know we say that every year, but this is going to be our year. We expect to put up an incredible fight."