SYCAMORE – Long after winning her third and fourth state championship medals, after the bus ride back with the DeKalb-Sycamore gymnastics team and after the celebratory pizza party with her teammates, Aleah Leman got into the passenger’s seat of her parents’ car and cried her eyes out.
It was over.
The DeKalb senior knew it was the last time she would compete with her DeKalb-Sycamore teammates, and the emotional day last month was filled with battling a mixture of cheers and tears.
“I got in the car and shut the door and just started sobbing,” said Leman, who is the Daily Chronicle Gymnast of the Year for the third consecutive season. “I was full-out bawling my eyes out. I told my parents it was coming; I told everybody it was coming. I knew I was going to. It’s over. Everything’s over.
“I remember sitting there (at the state championships) after everything – all the awards – we were taking pictures with the trophy, and I was sitting there with my team, trying not to cry. It was like, ‘This is my last time with them.’ It was a moment of reflection, of ‘I love this sport, I love this team, and I’m so happy to be doing this.’ ”
Leman, 17, capped her decorated career with the DeKalb-Sycamore team by adding two more individual state championships. She was first in the vault (9.85) – which she also won as a sophomore in 2015 – and was tied for first in the bars (9.525). Last season, she was at the top in the state in the floor exercise.
She leaves with her fingerprints on a program that finished as the state runner-up the past two seasons.
“She’s been a great kid to watch grow and coach,” coach Andy Morreale said. “Those type of athletes don’t come around very often. She had all the things that you can’t coach. They either have it or they don’t. The work ethic – you can’t teach somebody to work hard. Over the years, I’ve learned some athletes have it and some don’t. She’s always been one that had that work ethic.”
There have been plenty of crossroads for Leman in her gymnastics career, which began when she was 3 years old. Around her fifth year in the sport, when things started to get more intense, she said she seriously contemplated quitting.
“There were two or three times where it was a serious sit-down with my parents because I didn’t want to do it. I’m done,” she said. “That was the point things were picking up and getting harder, and you start realizing you have to work hard. That was the switch from me being lazy and not wanting to put in all the work.
“It’s hard to imagine my life without this sport and imagine myself without this sport.”
Now she owns a shadowbox full of awards and team pictures that tells her she made the right decision.
Leman has amassed a collection of individual awards in her four years with the DeKalb-Sycamore team – the four first-place medals, a handful of other IHSA State Championships medals and plenty of green street signs declaring that DeKalb is home to a state champion.
The most valued mementos that she owns? Her team picture and the team’s second-place medal, she said.
With her high school career over, Leman will live out another childhood dream. When she was younger, Leman said she was intimidated when attending Northern Illinois meets or when the Huskies gymnasts would come into her gym to work out.
Now she’s preparing for life as a college gymnast at Lindenwood University, a Division II school outside of St. Louis.
“I was like, ‘I want to do that,’ ” she said of watching the NIU gymnasts. “I always had that passion behind me to keep me driving to get to this point.”