April 9, 2010
By Larry Watts
Other than the first five letters in each word, there isn't any similarity between India and Indiana. But after spending her first four years in an orphanage in Madras, India, Shanthi Teike found herself on a one and one-half day plane flight to Chicago's O'Hare Airport and then on to Columbus, Ind.
"I understand that my birth mother was single and had to give me up due to money issues," Teike says. "From what I understand, she wanted a better life for me and felt I would receive better care and be more successful if I was placed in an orphanage. I have never had any contact with her since."
According to Shanthi, the adoption was a two-year process for Mark and Debbie Teike.
"They had a friend who had adopted a child from Korea and they became very interested although they already had two children," Teike says. "They never came to India. A doctor would come in from time to time to examine me and then he would send updates to my parents. Meanwhile, they had to be observed by a social worker to see how they interacted and if I would be a good fit for that family."
According to Teike, the change in cultures was "huge."
"Madras is more toward the equator and it was a very poor and unwelcoming area," she says. "The roads were dirt, with cars moving in all different directions, and the floors in the orphanage were dirt. Cattle were walking across the streets and people were outside cooking and doing their laundry. We ate a lot of porridge and oatmeal at the orphanage."
One of the biggest hurdles Teike had to overcome right away was the language barrier. She spoke Tamil, one of over 100 languages in India.
"I would say stuff and my new family had no idea what I was talking about," she says. "I would point to things and assume they knew. It took a couple of months before I said my first English words. We all got in the car one day and I said, 'Everybody buckle up."'
Her struggles with English prevented Teike, who will turn 20 in March, from entering school with the rest of the children her age. By the middle of third grade, she was still bringing home all her schoolwork so she could redo the assignments with her mother. Her mother would even take time to go to school in order to tutor her.
"My godmother is an English as a Second Language teacher and she suggested I get tested to see if I had ESL issues," she says. "The result was I ended up getting home-schooled from the middle of third grade all the way through eighth grade."
Teike's interest in gymnastics began when she was 5. Her sister, who was six years older, was having difficulty doing back handsprings for cheerleading, so her mother enrolled her in Wright's Gymnastics Academy.
"It was about a 45-minute drive once a week and my mother noticed I was taking an interest, so she enrolled me in classes," she says. "By the time I was 7, I was competing and I've been doing it ever since."
When she completed her studies at Columbus North High School, Teike was an honor roll student and a three-time participant in the Junior Nationals. Competing at Level 10, she took fifth in the all-around in 2006. Two years later, she won the vault and finished third on the balance beam. She was the regional champion in floor and vault, but did not qualify for the Nationals last summer.
"It was tough," she says. "I had hit my peak early in the year, but I suffered a finger injury on the bars and that really set me back. I made a couple of mistakes on the bars at the regional meet and that really killed my (all-around) score. I was upset I didn't make it, but when I thought about it I figured I had nothing to prove because I already had my scholarship (to Michigan State). The week off from training gave me a chance to rest my body and set my mind up for going to college."
By the time she entered her junior year of high school, Teike was already receiving heavy interest from college coaches. Kentucky had started contacting her when she was in sixth grade.
"There was Kentucky, Michigan State, Georgia, Ohio State, Denver and so many others," she says. "I took two unofficial visits each to Michigan State and Kentucky. Michigan State just seemed like the perfect fit when it came to the atmosphere, teammates and coaches, and when I got offered the scholarship, I just about fell out of my seat.
"I wanted to commit right then, but my dad convinced me to think about it. Every day I wanted to make that phone call and then he finally gave in a few days later."
It was while writing an essay for entrance to Michigan State last summer that Teike was able to fill in a few more blanks on her background. Part of the essay wanted to know about her social and economic life.
"I had no information about my birth parents, so I was going to leave it blank," she says. "But my mother brought out a packet with my adoption papers. I had known since grade school that I was adopted because kids were always asking me why I was a different color than my parents, but now I finally know my mother's name and my father was listed as anonymous. I don't think I have any siblings."
Teike has been competing as an all-arounder in most of the Spartans' meet during her rookie season. However, she readily admits her heart wasn't in it at first.
"When the coaches told me I'd be doing all-around, my first thought was, 'Oh my gosh, I have to do bars again,"' she says with a laugh. "Vault and floor are my strongest events and I love beam, but I was hoping I didn't have to do bars in college. They scare the heck out of me.
"Every single meet, (associate head coach) Randy Lane comes up to me before my bars routine and tells me to be aggressive and just think about my routine one skill at a time. Physically I know I can do it, so it's just a matter of getting my mind set. And it really helps me a lot when my teammates start cheering."
The closeness of the team is one of the big differences Teike has noticed from club competition.
"Your teammates tell you they are happy for you in club competition, but deep down you know many of them and their parents wish you had fallen on your face," she says. "But in college, we're all pulling hard for the team. If someone falls, they are pulling for you to step up and do the job."
Having been named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week once in the Big Ten this season, Teike is already making an impact for the Spartans, who are ranked 22nd nationally. She hit a personal best of 39.025 against Ohio State in the all-around and has posted scores of 9.850 and 9.825 on the floor and vault, respectively.
At 4-foot-11, Teike reluctantly admits she is the shortest Spartan.
"I wish I wasn't; I hate being so tiny," she says. "But there are advantages when it comes to doing bigger skills."
And there are disadvantages, like having to wait a little longer to go on the big rides at the amusement parks.
"I used to borrow socks from my friends and stuff them in my shoes to make me taller," she laughs. "And it worked!"
When her gymnastics career is over at Michigan State, Teike would like to travel back to India with her parents.
"We were supposed to go back in 2001, but then 9/11 happened and our plans changed," she says. "I've never had any contact with her, but I would like to meet my birth mother. I think I'm old enough to handle it.
"I wrote my caregiver at the orphanage four years ago and finally got a response this past summer. She sent me some pictures and there are over 20 kids in the orphanage now compared to when we had 10 while I was there. She told me my picture is still hanging up on the wall.
"When I think about it, this really has been quite a journey," Teike added.