Jan. 24, 2010
By Larry Watts
It doesn't take long to figure out where Melissa Fernandez gets her drive to become one of the nation's best performers on the balance beam. The example was set long ago in her own household.
Fernandez's mother, Tami Klinedinst, first enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1981. She got married to an international student and moved with him back to his home in Honduras, where she gave birth to three children. But after the marriage hit rocky times, she loaded up the children while her husband was at work and moved to Eudora, Kan. in 1993.
Working five different jobs at one point, she eventually remarried to a local pastor in 2000. Then in 2005, a year after giving birth to a fourth child, Klinedinst decided to return to the University of Kansas to finally finish her degree in psychology. However, she missed her graduation day in May 2007 because she was in Ohio watching Melissa perform in the Junior Olympic Level 10 National Championships.
"My mother is definitely an inspiration," says Fernandez as she prepares for her junior season at the University of Illinois. "What she did shows a lot of perseverance. Any person who can do something like that is amazing; it's a good trait to have.
"And then it took her four or five tries to obtain her administrator's license (to work in a nursing home). Every time she would fall a couple of questions short, but she would just come home and study again. That really took a lot of dedication."
It is that kind of dedication Fernandez, an Academic All-Big Ten honoree, has adapted to both her schoolwork and her performance for the Illini gymnastics squad.
"I haven't done it at a conscious level, but it helps to have that kind of environment while growing up," she says. "I've never been one to back down from a challenge. That's just how we were brought up."
That dedication was rewarded last season when Fernandez placed seventh on the balance beam at the NCAA Championships and became the first woman in Illinois gymnastics history to earn first-team All-America status. She even topped the leaderboard after the prelims with a score of 9.900 before earning a 9.8375 in the finals.
"It means a lot to me," Fernandez says. "I enjoy representing Illinois and it shows how far our program has come, and that's mainly in the past four years. This isn't just about the gymnasts, but it's the coaches as well.
"For me, I've always known I've been a decent gymnast and always had dreams and goals to compete at the NCAA Championships. And to be named with other great gymnasts, some who have been to the Olympics, is an honor."
Fernandez will never forget the atmosphere after leading on the first night.
"There was so much excitement and having my team there backing me up really helped. It was so exciting and surreal," she says. "My legs were shaking and I was nervous in the finals and I kept telling myself to do what I had been doing in practice. I did the routine, had a couple of bobbles, but it all turned out fine."
Fernandez, who took eighth in all-around, sixth in floor exercise and seventh on vault at those Junior Olympic National Championships back in 2007, had a list of approximately 10 schools interested in her services. She narrowed it down to visits to Boise State, Oklahoma, Illinois and Auburn, but while she was in Champaign, Auburn notified her that its scholarship limit had been met.
"I decided on Illinois mainly because of how close the team was," she says. "It was the family bond that attracted me here and I knew it was a perfect fit. Everyone just made me feel at home.
"I felt as though it was a team on the rise. I wanted to come in and have an impact so they could continue that success."
It's the kind of bond that makes Fernandez look forward to spending more time with her teammates during the holiday break.
"The underclassmen (who live in dorms) will stay with us and we're going to eat and sleep gymnastics," she says. "And when we're not doing that, we're going to be watching 'The Office.' We've already got all of the seasons lined up."
The 5-foot Fernandez has competed mainly in three events during her first two years. She is hoping to break into the floor lineup this year so she can become an all-arounder.
"We had some strong girls and were pretty deep in the floor last year," she says. "We have another good floor team this year, so it's up to the coaches to decide who is the most consistent."
Most of her offseason work has been spent on fine-tuning her uneven bars set.
"I had been using a Gienger release for six years but never really got it refined, so I took it out of my routine last year," she says. "I've been working on perfecting it this year, added a new dismount and have been working hard on my bar endurance."
In her quiet time, the 21-year-old keeps a daily diary. It's an addiction she's had since fifth grade.
"I was rummaging through my bedroom one day and found this journal I had kept in the first grade," she says. "I thought some of the things I said as a first grader were hilarious, so I started doing it again and have never stopped. It's something I enjoy doing and there are a lot of silly things in there, but it's for my eyes only! Sometimes I get a week behind and that really stresses me out."
A kinesiology major with a minor in Spanish, Fernandez says she really hasn't mapped out her future plans beyond the next couple of years. After graduation in 2011, she plans to spend a year living with her father and his wife in Honduras and then return to the United States to pursue a master's in public health.
"Both of my parents are remarried and there is no bitterness now. They've gotten to the point where they can talk to each other without old feelings resurfacing," she says. "I have remained in regular contact with my father and he came up to our team banquet last year. We (older sister Anna and younger brother Fabian) usually go to down there every other summer to spend two weeks with him.
"My mother cried when I told her of my decision, but I think that's more the motherly instinct. She now thinks it's a good decision and backs me up 100 percent. I lost a lot of my Spanish when I came to the States. I want to get the experience and learn to speak Spanish fluently."
As far as immediate gymnastics plans, Fernandez is hoping the Illini can finally break the three-year stranglehold Michigan has held over the Big Ten. Illinois came up less than a point short of the Wolverines at last year's Big Ten Championships.
"We expect it to be a tight race (with Penn State) again this year," she says. "I have a very good feeling about this year. We're going to be bringing a lot to the table, so watch out! But that's all I'm going to say about that."
After all, she is her mother's daughter and dedicated to the end.