Oakcrest High School freshman Alex Peters was a gymnast almost as soon as she could walk.
Toni Capria-Peters, Alex's mother, recalled her at 2 years old acrobatically vaulting over the side of her crib - as much an impressive feat for the toddler as it was cause for alarm.
"She used to flip out," Capria-Peters said. "Literally - flip. So we put her in (gymnastics) to make her safe, really."
A dozen years later, that precocious toddler has blossomed into one of the top young gymnasts in New Jersey. She will compete against the best in the state at the USA Gymnastics New Jersey Level 9/10 Championship meet at Rutgers University March 23-24. She will compete in all four events - floor exercises, balance beam, uneven bars and vault - and should she earn a combined score of 34.0, will advance to regional competition.
As good as she is in the gym, Alex is equally strong in the classroom, and is currently ranked first in her class of 305 at Oakcrest.
Peters, of Mays Landing, credits her years in gymnastics - for which she spends more than 20 hours a week in training, not counting competition and travel time - as giving her the discipline she uses to succeed in other areas.
"It definitely teaches so many life lessons that everyone can learn," the 14-year-old said. "It's just really helped me in life in general."
USA Gymnastics, the official governing body of U.S. artistic gymnastics, splits gymnasts into 11 levels, from Level 1, which is beginner, to Elite, which equates to Olympic-level competition. At Level 9, Peters competes at the organization's third-highest level.
While she has been involved with gymnastics since as far back as she can remember, it wasn't until Peters was about 7 that she really fell in love with the sport. A week before she was set to compete at Level 5 States, she fell ill. To make matters worse, she broke her toe shortly before the competition.
Still, Peters was able to push through her pain to earn her first spot atop the winners' podium.
"It kind of made everything feel like, everything, all your hard work, really does pay off," She said. "That definitely was the thing that really made me love it."
Alex's busy schedule often cuts into her class time, forcing her to leave school early or even miss days entirely to travel to more distant competitions. Capria-Peters said Alex's teachers have been very supportive, allowing her to complete much of her work outside of the classroom. But while Alex may be given leniency as far as the venue of her studies, she still is required to complete the same work as her peers.
The staff at Oakcrest say they like Alex as well. Janine Jones, Alex's guidance counselor, is one of her biggest fans at the school. Jones met Alex at freshman orientation when she was in eighth grade, and was immediately impressed, she said.
"Some students, you just know they have it, and I knew that right away from her," Jones said.
This early in her academic career, Alex is unsure what she wants to do. She plans to keep pushing her limits as a gymnast in the hopes of competing on a college team - Ivy League, if she has her way. At the moment, she says she would like to go into exercise science, but admits her professional aspirations change often.
Alex's schedule - which has her up at the crack of dawn and busy straight through bedtime - is certainly a stressful one. And while she said she does occasionally feel the burden of her commitments, she's got the tenacity to stay the course.
"There's definitely times where my friends will be out doing stuff and I'm at the gym, but honestly, I love being there," Alex said. "I know in the end it will all be worth it."
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