Dirt Off Her Shoulder

March 5, 2007

As one watches the Iowa GymHawks, one person who won’t go unnoticed is Katie Burke. The junior from Palatine, IL is not just an outstanding gymnast, but also has the attitude that keeps her teammates going. She’s high energy, very comedic, and doesn’t appear to take a lot seriously. This has allowed her to shine during her third season at Iowa.

It may seem difficult for first time onlookers, or even the freshmen, to realize Burke was once an unconfident gymnast, who took everything very seriously.

“She had no confidence, even with the amazing skills she had,” said Head Coach Larissa Libby. “She could do it in here [the gym], but she couldn’t duplicate it during competition.”

Burke came to Iowa as a talented gymnast with a huge skill repertoire. As with most freshmen, the transition was a difficult one. In Illinois, she had only trained under one coach. But, after coming to Iowa, she quickly learned how different coaching styles can be.

“When I got here, the coach had a little different coaching style and I put too much pressure on myself to get in the lineup and prove myself,” said Burke. “That just overwhelmed me instead of just coming to the gym because I love it.”

The sport that Burke once loved wasn’t fun anymore. The pressure she put on herself stemmed from the loss of Iowa’s exceptional 2004 class that included two All-Americans. When she stepped on campus, there was talk about a new generation. Those within the gymnastics community were already saying that Iowa would be on the decline unless the new class could step up.

“We just felt a ton of pressure on us,” said Burke of her class. “I dealt with it the wrong way.”

Heading into her freshmen season, the team was already trying to replace 13 of its14 routines. On top of that, the team had injury problems. The young class didn’t have the luxury of previous classes who didn’t have to compete right away. Even if they weren’t ready, they still had to compete.

“I think it just destroys your confidence when you’re out there all the time doing routines and knowing you’re not doing it well,” said Libby.

At the time, Burke was not mentally ready and the failures she endured made the situation worse. For the coaches, it was just a matter of keeping morale up. When they convinced themselves they weren’t good enough, it was all over.

During meets, the mental problems Burke had with herself heightened. If she missed on her first attempt, Libby knew she would miss the second time. She had already convinced herself that she couldn’t do it. After this, Libby recalls, she would go into a corner by herself.

“She would beat herself up so much,” said Libby. “Even if she made a mistake in practice, it wasn’t okay. She would freak out and not let it go.”

After a summer of training at home, Burke came back to Iowa looking much better. But, after some time, the pressures kicked in again. She didn’t appear confident when it came to her performance in competitions and ultimately went through an inconsistent season.

During the 2006 summer, Libby tried to alter several areas of the program she felt needed change. She brought in a sports psychologist to work with anyone who wanted the help.

Burke took advantage of this opportunity and even though it was different for her to talk about the fears, she found it helpful. The psychologist simply got her to think back to when she was young and loved the sport.

Coming into her freshman year, she had questions. She didn’t know if she was good enough. By thinking back to when she was young, she was able to discount the negative thoughts. She had learned to trust herself and her instincts.

Also helping her was the different approach in coaching Libby took with her. While studying up on mental training in gymnastics, Libby learned that “In order to be successful, you first have to admit failure. Know that it exists, dismiss it, and compete hard regardless.” She took this approach with Burke, more than any other gymnast, because her problem was getting rid of the negative thoughts. From then on, she’s been a different gymnast.

Being a shy person in high school, Burke clung to that personality at Iowa. She found herself finally breaking away from that this year.

“I think I finally became comfortable with who I was,” said Burke. “My freshmen year I was trying to be something I wasn’t. When I finally got to my junior year, I was like, I’m just going to be what comes natural and if that is being the obnoxious girl that makes everybody laugh, that’s who I am and I love doing that. I just like to have fun.”

Her attitude is much more carefree. She now knows it’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t do something perfect. Things can be fixed and that has given her a confidence she hadn’t had since setting foot on campus. Libby says Burke is always brushing things off, not just in gymnastics, but in all aspects of life.

The change in Burke is something that Libby has seen in her team also. The atmosphere has become much more relaxed. For the first time in three years, the junior class finally feels they are good enough. All classes are different and it took her time to figure out how to get this one to succeed.

For Burke, she’s having fun with gymnastics again.

“Just let it go,” said Burke. “Just have fun and you’ll do well. That’s what I’ve done.”

The complete change in attitude has allowed Burke to fulfill the potential that Libby has seen in her all along. In January, she won her first all-around title at Illinois. Her second win came at Minnesota. She is currently ranked 29th nationally.

Josh Mitchell, Iowa Sports Information