When Urbana junior Brooke Alban competes in the pole vault, at least one knowledgeable observer has been wowed.
“She’s so explosive and so fearless,” Hawks girls track and field coach C.J. Ecalono said. “When she plants the pole in the box, you see her skyrocket into the air. It’s amazing to watch.”
Like many pole vaulters, Alban has a background in gymnastics, which provides spatial awareness that helps her clear a bar in mid-air and steer clear of danger when landing on a mat.
But in Alban’s case, gymnastics wasn’t relegated to the background, destined to be abandoned after she discovered how much she enjoyed vaulting, jumping and running for her high school track and field team. No, gymnastics was, is and will continue to be her main sport.
As a member of the Frederick Gymnastics Club, Alban is a Level 10 gymnast, which is as highest level in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Program. And in December, she verbally committed for a full athletic scholarship to compete for the West Virginia University’s women’s gymnastics team.
Securing a spot in a college gymnastics program fulfilled a long-held dream, one she spent countless hours over the years trying to make come true.
Each week, Alban logs 22 hours of gymnastics practice to stay sharp in a sport she took up at the age of 3. And in the spring, she has found time to put in about three days each week with Urbana’s track and field team, a sport she took up relatively later in life.
“She’s pretty adamant about it,” said Ecalono, who marvels at Alban’s ability to handle such a busy schedule.
Some gymnastics coaches wouldn’t allow their athletes to participate in another sport. But Frederick Gymnastics Club Level 10 coach Heather Galpin had no problem with it.
“I enjoy watching them go off and get to experience a little bit more of high school life rather than just being in the gym 24 hours a day,” she said. “And I know that Brooke really enjoys doing track, and it’s been great for her.”
Granted, Alban’s workload has been significantly reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, she’s basically been restricted to doing track-related workouts.
“I still go for runs, [Ecalono] gives us track workouts to do, so I’ve been doing those at home and just trying to stay in shape because there’s not really much to do for gymnastics at home,” Alban said. “I’m not used to having this much time on my hands.”
Gymnasts that reach Level 10 aren’t known for whiling away the hours. Galpin has seen Alban made consistent progress.
“I’ve been really impressed with her work ethic and her ability to push through hardships because her talent is more so through determination than just natural talent,” Galpin said. “So it’s been really exciting to see her become such a good gymnast. You never know how far these kids are going to go.”
Alban ended up going pretty far. She was a 2019 Junior Olympic National Qualifier. At the 2019 Level 10 Region 7 meet, she placed second all-around. This year, her third at Level 10, the nationals have been canceled because of the health crisis.
Alban excels at the uneven bars, which differs from the other three events in gymnastics. As Galpin pointed out, vault, beam and floor all involve tumbling, to some degree.
“You’re either tumbling on a beam, you’re tumbling over the vault or you’re tumbling on the floor,” Galpin said. “Bars is sort of a whole sport of its own. ... It’s completely upper-body strength, and it’s also how good of a swinger you are. So bars, it’s either people’s blessing or their curse.
“Brooke is good at bars. It is her best event,” she said. “But the other events have come along as she got older. I’ve been especially proud of how her vault and her tumbling have also come along as she got older.”
Alban would also eventually give track and field a try. One of her Frederick Gymnastics Club teammates suggested she try the pole vault.
“I originally started track thinking I was going to do pole vault only,” she said. “But then I got into the triple jump and long jump.”
As a freshman, she ended up qualifying for New Balance National Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the triple jump.
“Brooke is one of those athletes that is explosive, she’s quick, fast,” Ecalono said “She hurdles for us, triple jumps, long jumps, high jumps, and the main event would probably be pole vault.”
Ecalono had high hopes for Alban in the pole vault this season, but it remains to be seen if she — or any other high school athlete in the nation — will compete this spring because of the pandemic and ensuing shutdown.
But when she does compete, Alban figures track and field helps her as a gymnast, and vice-versa.
“I benefit in both sports when I do them because track gives me better endurance and it really strengthens my legs,” she said. “And then gymnastics gives me the through-the-air awareness for pole vault and the jumps.”
No matter what happens this year in track and field, Alban still has another year left of high school. And she’s already secured her future as a college gymnast, with some help from Frederick Gymnastics Club teammate Julia Merwin.
Merwin, like a couple other of Alban’s FGC teammates, competed for West Virginia (she was a senior this season) and served as liaison between Alban and Mountaineers associate head coach Travis Doak.
“She talked to the [WVU] coach about me, and she introduced me,” Alban said. “So, he came to my gym to watch me practice.”
Towson University made an offer to Alban, giving her until January to accept. But when the Mountaineers offered her in December, she jumped at the chance.
When asked about gymnasts she has emulated, Alban mentioned Frederick Gymnastics Club teammates who had earned spots on Division I college teams.
“I always looked up to them,” she said.
Now, others can look up to Alban, figuratively for earning a spot on a Division I team and literally whenever she gets back to performing on the bars or soaring through the air as a pole vaulter.