05/05/08 — Harker earns trip to JO Nationals

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Harker earns trip to JO Nationals

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on May 5, 2008 1:48 PM

Ben Harker couldn't believe his ears. Was he the regional champion on the high bar? Was he a member of the Southeast Region team which will compete in the Junior Olympic National Championships?

The 16-year-old gymnast felt he had no chance to earn a spot on the six-member squad, which is dominated each season by Florida competitors.

"You did your numbers wrong," quipped Harker when the results were announced. "There's no way. That can't be right."

But it was true.

The sophomore at South Central in Winterville, who trains at Traditional Gymnastics in Goldsboro, had indeed qualified for the nationals which begin Thursday in Battle Creek, Mich. He posted top-eight scores on five of six events and finished fifth in the all-around competition with a mark of 80.350.

Harker is just one of two North Carolina gymnasts to make the regional team.

"I didn't believe it at first," said Harker. "I knew who was going to get the top three and I figured there were two bottom spots open. It was good to sneak in there."

Ironically, the one apparatus that gave Harker trouble in warm-ups turned out to be his saving grace. He missed the high bar several times on flips and either hit his head or landed on his back. But with a large crowd watching him, Harker performed a clean routine when it counted the most.

After he stuck his dismount, he walked off with mixed emotions.

"There is no way I'm scoring really well on that," said Harker.

However, the judges viewed the routine differently and awarded Harker a regional-best score of 13.550. Revived, relaxed and filled with confidence, he performed strong routines in his final three events -- floor exercise, parallel bars and vault.

The consistent finishes helped the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Harker achieve his goal of making the regional team. Now, he's hoping to garner attention from college coaches this week and earn a scholarship. Just 18 colleges and universities, in Divisions I and Division III combined, have gymnastics programs.

Harker has aspirations of competing for perennial national powers Stanford, Oklahoma State or Penn State. He's also interested in the service academies, particularly the Air Force Academy and West Point.

"It's good to know that I've got a really good chance to place out there," said Harker. "This is where you get noticed. The main goal of all of this is to get a college scholarship and not have to walk on.

"It's going to be expensive no matter where I go. I'm just trying to get into one of the top colleges and get a good education."

Harker has not ruled out the Olympics and the prestigious Visa Cup competition. But he just wants to enjoy college life and improve his skills with some of the nation's top coaches.

An energetic individual, Harker currently works out 12 hours a week, fine-tuning "mini" parts of his routine on usually four of six apparatus. The workout can undoubtedly become rigorous and strenuous, but he's been able to avoid injuries during the season which runs from November to May.

He's undoubtedly made the most of his three years at Traditional Gymnastics under the tutelage of Lisa and James Sargent.

"I grew out of my program at my other gym and we had to find somewhere to help me get to the next level," said Harker. "They invited me to come work out for a week. It was a big risk."

But it's a risk that has worked out well.