For most of her school career, Kacey Mortenson has practiced to deliver in the pressure-packed moments on the balance beam and uneven bars.
The 2018 Oregon High School graduate overcame bouts of anxiety last year and went on to win the WIAC championship on the balance beam as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Mortenson turned in a lifetime-best 9.75 to win the conference title on the beam. Now, she’s looking to carry that momentum into this season if the COVID-19 pandemic allows.
“After conference last year, it helped me find a love for the sport again and being in the moment,” Mortenson said. “It was a surprise at the end of the year. During the year, I had no idea where I was in the standings.”
Now as a junior, Mortenson is one of the key returners for the Eagles, who were scheduled to start fall practice on Monday, Oct. 5.
She understands how it feels to deal with high expectations. Two years ago, as a freshman, Mortenson was an all-around competitor for the Eagles.
Early last season, Mortenson said she struggled with anxiety going into practice and meets and she went downhill.
“I felt like if I didn’t make a lineup I was a disappointment,” she said. “Every time I fell, I thought I wasn’t good enough or should not be in the lineup. I felt a need to be the same gymnast I was as a freshman. I felt that pressure last year to be an all-arounder.”
Mortenson, who started tumbling classes at Gymfinity at age 2, started competitive gymnastics at 6, and said she’s her own harshest critic. She yearned to be that same dependable gymnast the team could count on for consistent scores as an all-around competitor last year, she said.
To say she is committed may be underselling her determination — she practiced five days a week for four hours a practice in high school at Gymfinity.
Mortenson went on to win a state championship on the balance beam in 2018 for the Gymfinity club team and was a five-time regional qualifier. She also played basketball, softball and competed in track and field in middle school, though she gave them up when she reached high school to focus on gymnastics.
“I didn’t have a social life,” she said.
She knew a change was needed in her mental game with the pressure she was putting on herself. As a graphic design major, the hobbies away from gymnastics she uses to keep her calm are drawing, painting and photography. Mortenson also is pursuing a photography minor and has a side business taking senior and family portraits.
Mortenson said her biggest improvement as a gymnast has been the mental game, where she has turned her focus to the success of the team.
“I really put all of my focus into the team instead of me,” she said. “I felt like gymnastics is so much bigger than me. I focused on doing my best performance for the team and that changed my mentality.”
The UW-La Crosse gymnastics team finished third at the WIAC Champiosnhips last year with 189.35 points, just .22 points behind conference champion UW-Oshkosh. In addition to her conference title on the balance beam, Mortenson tied for 10th on the uneven bars (9.45) and tied for 14th on the vault (9.425).
UW-La Crosse gymnastics coach Kasey Crawford said Mortenson is internally motivated and dedicated to succeed.
“I knew coming in Kacey was a talented gymnast who could compete in all four events,” Crawford said. “Her mental game has improved and put her over the top. She mentally had to be able to do it at the end of the year.”
Mortenson wants to be a leader and a springboard for new gymnasts.
“I want to be a role model for the younger girls on the team,” she said.
She still aims for competing in all four events — balance beam, floor, uneven bars and vault as an all-around gymnast.
“I know I have to earn that spot,” she said. “Being an all-around gymnast has always been a goal of mine.”
Looking ahead to new season
It’s been about seven months since she last practiced with her teammates and coaches at UW-La Crosse because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Morteonson trained solo over the summer at Performance Elite Gymnastics in La Crosse.
Crawford said gymnastics is a tough sport for gymnasts to train for on their own over the summer.
“She will train by herself and comes in on her own,” Crawford said. “That is what has paid off for her.”
This year’s season is getting off to a late start due to the pandemic. The first fall practice with the other Eagle gymnasts and coaches was scheduled for Monday, the first official practice is the first week in January, and the first meet has been pushed back to Jan. 22.
She was planning on using a Yurchenko tuck dismount on the vault, but because of reduced practice time the past year, she said she will stay with a Yurchenko layout dismount on the vault. The Yurchenko move, made famous by world all-around Soviet champion Natalia Yurchenko, is one of the toughest vaults in gymnastics, starting with a roundoff onto the springboard, a back handspring to the vault table and a layout dismount.
On the balance beam, she closes her routine with a gainer, a running backflip off the front of the beam. She plans to use her same dismount on the uneven bars that requires a giant, full pirouette and then a double backflip dismount.
“It will take some time to get all of the skills back,” she said. “I’m hoping to get back to where I was last year.”