How a Trio of Acrobatic Gymnasts Won Gold
Sara Mercer, Sophia Handel and Cameron Jones won the top prize in their category at the USA Gymnastics Championship in Providence, Rhode Island
Top to bottom: Sara Mercer, Sophia Handel and Cameron Jones compete at the Acrobatic Pat Wade Classic in Stoke-on-Trent, England.
For two years, a trio of acrobatic gymnasts from Maryland set their sights on the highest level of competition in their sport, regularly practicing together for four hours a day, six days a week at a gym in Rockville as they prepared for this year’s world championships in China.
In acrobatic gymnastics, athletes perform with at least one partner, fusing acrobatics with music and dance, Cirque du Soleil style. They do not perform on vaults, bars or beams like their higher-profile “artistic” gymnastics peers. Cameron Jones, 18, Sophia Handel, 18, and Sara Mercer, 14, had only each other as they tumbled, tossed and twisted their way into body pyramids. On and off the floor, the teens instinctively supported one another.
“We talk to each other about everything. Boy problems. School problems. Stress,” says Cameron, who lives in Potomac. “It doesn’t make sense to go to anybody else because we know each other best.”
But teenagers grow, which means they can’t always hang on to their role in a pair or a trio. The “top” partner—typically the youngest, the one small enough to be tossed around or stacked high above her teammates—inevitably outgrows the “base” partners beneath her. It’s not unusual in this sport to transition from top to base over time, but doing so usually requires changing partners.
With that in mind, growing together and apart emerged as a central theme in one of the trio’s key routines heading into the championships, says Juli Eicher, the girls’ coach at Xtreme Acro in Rockville. “I told them to pretend like it’s the last time they’ll be performing together,” Eicher says. “That’s how they’ve performed it for two years, and this year they did it knowing it was their end.”
The most accomplished acrobatic gymnasts strive to compete in the Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championships, widely considered the Olympics of this non-Olympic sport. The championships take place on even-numbered years, so athletes tend to form their partnerships and choreograph their routines roughly two years in advance of each world event, tweaking their performances at several competitions along the way.
Left to right: Sara, Cameron and Sophia at the USA Gymnastics Championship in Providence, Rhode Island
Cameron and Sara competed as a pair at the 2014 World Championships in France, but did not qualify for the final round. Looking ahead to 2016, they started strategizing. “We knew that soon I’d be too tall for us to be in a pair,” says Sara, a Darnestown resident. “At first, we didn’t know what to do.”
Cameron and Sara had competed against Sophia at several events, including in France. After that competition, Sara’s mother approached Sophia’s parents about teaming up. In August 2014, the girls formed a trio, with Sophia as the “middle.”
“It was a little intimidating because they were both extremely talented and I didn’t know if I could live up to their expectations,” says Sophia, who lives in Annapolis. “But in our first practice together, we were all laughing and I knew it would work out.”
The girls headed to California soon after to work with a choreographer. In acrobatic gymnastics, performances tell a story. Points are earned for the athletes’ strength and flexibility, as well as for artistry, musicality and the difficulty of the routine.
The trio also had fun along the way. They performed last year on America’s Got Talent and at the U.S. Olympic trials for women’s gymnastics in San Jose, California, where they met legendary U.S. gymnast Simone Biles.
At the world championships in China in March, they ranked fourth out of 28 trios within the 12 to 18 age group, just one-tenth of a point shy of the bronze medal. Three months later, they were off to the USA Gymnastics Championship in Providence, Rhode Island, their sport’s big national competition. They opened with a slow routine to the tune of “Bella’s Lullaby” from the sound track of the movie Twilight. The trio started in an intertwined pose, then repeatedly separated and regrouped into a series of pyramids. Ultimately, they ended up apart.
“As we were walking off the floor, all of us started to cry,” Cameron says. “Once we got off the floor we hugged and started bawling. We were super proud of ourselves, and we knew it was our last time together. We were feeling everything.” They ended up winning the gold for Junior Elite trios in the 13 to 19 age group.
Cameron and Sophia are now training for the next world event—without Sara.
Cameron, who was accepted by Louisiana State University after graduating from Walt Whitman High School this year, decided to stay put and enroll at Montgomery College so she could continue training. Sophia, a senior, is continuing to be home schooled, an arrangement that helps her better manage her time.
Sara started her freshman year at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg this fall, where she made the varsity cross-country team. She’s sad about ending her acrobatics career, but says she’s happy she left on a high note.
“We got our highest scores ever,” Sara says. “We had fallen down doing this routine at nationals in 2015. We redeemed ourselves, so I focus on that more than the sadness.”