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Geneva gymnast enjoying early taste of big-time

Gabrielle Perea of Geneva practice session in preparation for the 2013 Secret U.S. Classic at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates Friday morning. Perea will be competing with the juniors today.
Gabrielle Perea of Geneva practice session in preparation for the 2013 Secret U.S. Classic at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates Friday morning. Perea will be competing with the juniors today.

HOFFMAN ESTATES – Gabrielle Perea runs down her injury history like a grizzled, professional athlete nearing the end of a venerable career.

“I’ve had my back and I’ve had my knee, and just a couple days ago I strained my neck muscle,” Perea said. “But I’m just pushing through it and trying to ignore the pain.”

It’s not easy being 11½ years old – at least not for Perea, a budding, national-level gymnast from Geneva. 

The Rotolo Middle School sixth-grader is competing today at the Sears Centre in the Junior Division of the 2013 Secret U.S. Classic, an event scheduled to include 2012 U.S. Olympian gymnasts in the Senior Division.

Like most gifted young gymnasts, Perea harbors Olympic aspirations, and she’s ahead of schedule on her trajectory, according to Jiana Wu. Wu, alongside her husband, Yuejiu Li, coaches Perea out of Carol Stream-based Legacy Elite Gymnastics.

Perea, born Jan. 1, 2002, is among the youngest competitors in the Junior Division at the Secret U.S. Classic.

“She just proved to me she could handle this,” said Wu, standing a few feet from Perea after a Friday morning practice session at the Sears Centre. “So we said, OK, a year early we can try, just get more experience, get on the podium, compete with the big kids. It helps with her learning to know what she really has to do to keep up with these kids.”

In some respects, Perea already is a veteran gymnast, having immersed herself in the sport since graduating from tumbling as a toddler. She trained out of two other gyms before landing under the tutelage of Wu and Li – both former Chinese Olympians – at Legacy Elite.

Perea stands about 4-foot-10 and 67 pounds, but Wu said “even with her little body, she actually has some power in her.” She has enjoyed substantial success at several national competitions this year.

“Just through the last two years, she’s really started showing the talent and the mentality, the material to work with,” Wu said.

Perea trains five or six days a week for about 30 hours total. To accommodate her grueling regimen, she leaves school early, and part of her courseload is handled through home-schooling.

She has a clear sense of where she stands with her skill set. 

“I think beam and floor are pretty strong,” said Perea, whose mother, Joyce, participated in park district gymnastics. “Bars are OK, I still need [to work on] a couple things, and vault is my weakness.”

The Senior Division of the Secret U.S. Classic is scheduled to include 2012 U.S. Olympian gold medalists McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross.

The competition is the final qualifying event for the 2013 U.S. Gymnastics Championships later this month in Hartford, Conn.

On Perea’s end, simply being part of the weekend – she hoped to have a chance to mingle with some of her older role models – was an opportunity to savor.

“I’ve been pushing it for a couple weeks now,” Perea said. “I’ve been trying to keep with a healthy diet and going to bed as early as possible and just trying to keep myself healthy for the meet.”

While Perea is only 11, chances at international glory come relatively early in her sport. Several members of the 2012 American team in London were 15 or 16 years old.

“I try to tell the kids, yes, set the goal that big, but you have to set daily goals, because you can’t just jump there,” Wu said. “You have to go step by step, and she’s so [clear-headed]. She understands.”

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