It all starts with a prayer.
Before she begins her beam routine, the high-wire act of competitive gymnastics, Sydney Ewing finds a quiet place just off the floor with LSU teammate and fellow Louisianian Michelle Gauthier to whisper a quick “Hail Mary,” hands clasped, eyes closed, heads bowed. Few know it, but gymnasts have the highest injury rate of any women’s sport. The Hail Mary is a petition for inner peace and protection.
Then Sydney takes to the skies, flipping and tumbling like a sequined barnstormer, executing the two-footed layout move that has become her signature, the element that sets her beam routine apart from the rest.
All the while, the voice of Sydney’s brother Travis, who made it onto the TV show “The Voice” last year, is playing over the loudspeakers, keeping time with a suitably haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s chillingly gorgeous ballad, “Hallelujah.”
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall
The major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
The whole breathtaking production seems more like ballet than an athletic event. For Donna Ewing, it’s 90 seconds of sensory overload.
“Beam is the worst event for me as a coach and a mother,” she said. “I hate to watch it. It’s the event when I just hope and pray she doesn’t fall three times.
“But having him sing while she’s doing it — oh, gosh, I just want to get through the whole thing without crying.”
In truth, floor is Sydney Ewing’s favorite event. But it’s her beam routine, with its accompanying personal flourishes, that best encompasses the person, the gymnast, the competitor that she is.
Sidney Ewing was 4 years old when she started competing in gymnastics back home in Lafayette. The minimum age was actually 5, but her skills were so advanced for someone so small, no one thought to make it an issue.
“She was 5 for two years,” said Donna Ewing, who now lives and works in Pontchatoula. “No one noticed.”
They began to take notice of her very quickly — especially at LSU.
Coach D-D Breaux observed how Sydney would absorb new skills in summer camps at LSU, take them home to Lafayette to practice with her mother at Acadiana Gymnastics where Donna worked.
“It was always very gratifying from year to year to watch her compete after camp, because you always saw things she would work on,” Breaux said.
Ewing reached Level 10, the highest level of junior gymnastics, finishing fifth at the 2013 Junior Olympic national championships on vault and sweeping all the individual titles that year at the Louisiana state meet.
Still, Ewing didn’t earn a scholarship offer from LSU. Offers of full rides came from schools like Boise State and New Hampshire, but she decided to stay close to home with the program closest to her, even as a walk-on.
“In my heart, I knew I wanted to go to LSU,” Ewing said. “The opportunity to walk on was good enough for me.”
Breaux, who recruits internationally, always likes to have a core of Louisiana gymnasts on her roster if possible. Eventually, Ewing earned a scholarship.
“I think it’s critically important to at least try to get the very best kids in the state,” Breaux said.
In her three seasons at LSU, Ewing has been the epitome of that.
When not in class or in the gym, Ewing is at mass. Or taking part in Fellowship of Christian Athletes activities. Or doing volunteer work at places like Gardere Community Christian School.
Ewing isn’t overt about her faith, but she doesn’t mask it either. Ask about her favorite Bible verse, and she can find 1 Corinthians 10:31 on her smartphone in a matter of seconds:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
“My faith over the past year has grown so much,” Ewing said. “I include it with my gymnastics, and it gives me a bigger purpose and sense of peace. I’m doing what I do not for me, but for the glory of God.
“I’ve shared that with the team and it has impacted us this year. Collectively I think we all have a part in it. I just tend to be more vocal. Everyone is different in expressing their faith.”
Ewing is careful to point out that people shouldn’t confuse religious with a lack of competitiveness.
“Being religious doesn’t mean I don’t mind losing,” she said. “I’m super-competitive. But our team isn’t a failure if we lose. It’s not so heartbreaking. It just keeps us humble.”
Ewing and her teammates experienced a humbling moment two weeks ago at the Southeastern Conference championships.
A three-time All-American, Ewing did her part for the most part in her three events: a 9.875 on vault, a 9.850 on beam, a 9.750 on floor. But her scores like those of her teammates weren’t quite good enough to push No. 3-ranked LSU past a third-place team finish behind Florida and Alabama.
They head into an NCAA regional Saturday at Georgia determined to use the disappointment of the SEC meet in North Little Rock, Arkansas, to spur them on to the heights they will need to climb to have a shot at the program’s first NCAA championship.
“Little Rock didn’t go as planned,” Ewing said. “We learned a lot from that meet. We couldn’t find the six or seventh-tenths we needed through the meet (to win). It motivated us to come back in the gym and work on the small things to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The Tigers have an extra tinge of motivation this weekend: Athens was the site of LSU’s only regular-season loss — in a regular season that included wins over No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Florida and No. 4 Alabama.
“We don’t have to be anything we’re not,” Ewing said. “We’ve done the work. Our gymnastics is harder than pretty much any team in the country. It’s a mental game. We have to put ourselves in pressure situations, so when it comes down to the last performance, there’s no doubt or worry.”
Unlike at home meets in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, Ewing won’t have her brother Travis’ “Hallelujah” ringing in her ears. Four-team regionals, like LSU’s rotation at the SEC championships, are a whirlwind of competitors and distracting events all happening at once without a gymnast’s personal musical score.
But she’ll have a prayer, and peace in her heart. And the determination to succeed for a greater glory than herself.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.