SYCAMORE – In the past few years, the DeKalb-Sycamore gymnastics co-op team has grown from a handful of athletes – not even enough to field a full team in the early days – into a state power with back-to-back second-place finishes.
At the center of it all has been Aleah Leman.
Leman claimed two individual state championships this year to cap her high school career, and because of that she was named the Daily Chronicle 2016-17 Girls Athlete of the Year.
“I think there were bumps in the road and times where it didn’t go as well, but it ended up as well as I thought it could go,” Leman said. “State could have gone better, I think, but I still ended up with two state titles. I can’t really be upset about that.”
Although she came in with hopes of not only winning an all-around title but helping the Barbs to a team title, she did win the vault (9.85) and tied for first on the bars (9.525). She won the floor in 2016 and the vault in 2015 – her first year with the program.
When she joined the team, it had never placed at state. The Barbs took seventh in 2015 and finished behind Prairie Ridge the past two seasons.
Leman said the chemistry on the team, coupled with an increase in the number of quality gymnasts, has caused the program to rise in the past three years.
“A lot of the girls that came in my senior year, we already knew each other,” Leman said. “The unity is there – we already had a bond. It made the experience so much better because you already had someone encouraging you. And just the strength of the team – this year we had so much depth, which we haven’t had. Girls are getting tired, girls are getting injured, and in the past we couldn’t afford to lose all these good girls. But this year we had so much depth, we could substitute girls in, so we were fresh for state.”
Coach Andy Morreale said that Leman has been a key part of the team’s recent success.
“She’s kind of a pioneer,” Morreale said. “When she got here, it was the third season of the program, I think. ... Impactwise, it’s going to be tough to replace her. She’s been with the girls on the team from the beginning. The young ones really look up to her from a leadership standpoint. Her leadership wasn’t so much ‘Go, fight, win, rah rah.’ It was her training. They kind of followed suit.”
Morreale said he expects Leman’s footprint will be a lasting one on the program, and the leadership he said she has shown will continue even after she’s gone.
“A couple of them really look up to her and really took on her personality from a work standpoint,” Morreale said. “By example, she has really done a great job of molding the young kids and being that kind of athlete. It’s great having a girl out there cheering everybody on, but I like the ones that show up, too. I think she’s done a great job of that.”
Morreale said Leman also has gotten stronger since the season ended – saying that she hasn’t fallen in an event since the high school season finished.
Not only has she competed on her club team, but she went to Fort Myers, Florida, to participate in the National High School Gymnastics Association Senior Invitational, which is open to gymnasts in the 12th grade only. Competitors came from 12 states, and Leman won three of the four events, plus was second overall.
She said she liked competing in the low-pressure exhibition, although the higher stakes return when she heads to Lindenwood University in the fall to continue her gymnastics career.
Leman said her three years with the Barbs was an experience she’d never trade.
“It humbles me to know I was able to encourage girls to do something that I find is one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Leman said. “I went out there and said, ‘This is a lot of fun, and you should go out there and do this because it’s something you’ll never, ever forget.’
“For me to see the change happen, and know I was a part of that, was somebody who could help the program grow like it did, was really special to me.”