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Friday, April 19, 2024

Senior Sacrifices: Gymnast takes long journey from home to compete for four years at UF

A white Hyundai Sonata cruises onto the turnpike blaring country music through scenic Pennsylvania.

Breezewood. Halfway there.

For UF gymnast Corey Hartung, it's a drive she and her mother, Karen, have made dozens of times.

Corey knows that once they get on the Pennsylvania turnpike, it's time to count down to magic exit No. 7, now mile-based exit 67. To most commuters, it's the exit to Irwin. To Corey, it's the exit to her friends, brother Justin, sister Ashley, her father Jeff, and to a special kiss with her dad - one that's been routine since kindergarten.

The three-hour drive up from Gaithersburg, Md., to Pittsburgh is something Corey became accustomed to in eighth grade. She had no other choice. She loves gymnastics so much that she was willing to be three hours away from her family. It's a sacrifice the whole family, not just Corey, made so she could pursue the love of her life.

From Irwin to Gaithersburg

Mix two parts innate skill and one part chance, and you get the beginning of Corey's gymnastics career.

Corey, then 8 years old, along with her then-10-year-old sister Ashley, had always been active. Corey was a promising softball player with a strong swing before she even set foot on a mat.

But it was Kasomon's Gymnastics, a gym 10 minutes down the road from Corey's house in Pittsburgh, that changed everything.

What had started out as a channel for cartwheels, flips and bottled-up energy turned into the beginnings of a lifestyle for Corey.

"Gymnastics kind of seemed to fit her, and she seemed to fit it," Jeff said.

After a while, expenses piled up, and Ashley quit. But not Corey.

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"I knew I didn't want to quit. I knew I had a talent for it, and I had a dream to go further, so I convinced my parents to let me stay in it," Corey said.

Sure enough, she did have talent, and soon Kasomon's couldn't contain her. One day, Corey, perched on her dad's lap, pleaded to her parents to let her pursue gymnastics.

"I remember just crying to (my dad) and just telling him, 'I don't want to do it here anymore. I want to go somewhere where I trust the coaches and I know that there's success there and I know that I can follow my dreams,'" Corey said.

And the winner for most determined 12 1/2-year-old…Corey Hartung.

In just three quick months, Karen had a new job, and she and Corey were making the first of many drives to their new home, new school, new job and new life in Gaithersburg.

How do you spell sacrifice?

G-A-I-T-H-E-R-S-B-U-R-G.

"It was a big sacrifice," Karen said. "Not only me, but very much (Corey) because she gave up all her friends and her sister and her brother and her dad. But she said, 'This is what I want.' She did give up a lot."

This is a girl who was giving up her family, her home, her best friend since first grade and her school in Pittsburgh for gymnastics.

Leann DeMuzzio couldn't believe her best friend was leaving her.

"I was really upset," DeMuzzio said. "That just shows how dedicated she was to gymnastics. She left everything and left her comfort zone."

Corey's middle school even made a banner for her that was signed by the whole school as a farewell to Corey.

Tough? Sure. Worth it? Definitely.

"The main thought going through my head was, 'I'm going to become a better gymnast here at Hill's, and I can't wait to get started and achieve my goals and win competitions,'" Corey said.

From Level 10 to Top 18

"The first year was tough, I'm not going to lie about that," Corey admitted. "But after I knew I was going in the right direction, after I figured out it was worth moving, everything fell into place."

Hill's Gymnastics was tough on Corey mentally, emotionally and physically, demanding nearly 40 hours a week of practice.

"With Kelli Hill (Hill's Gymnastics founder and coach), it was a very big wake-up call," Corey said. "I was sore, I think, every day for the first six months because the intensity and conditioning was so hard."

During Corey's first year at Hill's, Kelli didn't think Corey could be an elite gymnast.

She even told Corey she would be demoted to level 10, the ranking below "elite" for gymnasts.

"I remember her telling me that, and I was so determined to be an elite," Corey said. "I was like, 'No Kelli, I'm going to work my butt off to be an elite. There was no way I was going to be a level under what was the top level."

In 2003 and 2004, Corey not only proved she was an elite gymnast, but she was also one of the top 18 gymnasts in the country, landing a spot on the U.S. Senior National Team.

"It just helped you realize what you worked for your whole life, the sacrifices you made," Corey said. "My family went through a lot of sacrifices for me, more than most others would. We had to go through some hard times for me to get there."

Following the 2004 Athens Olympics, under the tutelage of Hill, an Olympic coach, college gymnastics entered the picture, and Corey was one hot commodity.

"We just said, 'You decide where you feel more comfortable," Jeff said. "We'll support you again.'"

Letters poured in from a slew of schools. Corey's first instinct was Georgia, where she had family. There was also UF, LSU and Alabama to choose from. All of them wooed her, but UF coach Rhonda Faehn won the recruiting competition - by a landslide.

From Recruit to Role Model

People say Faehn and Corey look alike. They talk alike. Even their gymnastics are alike.

"I just fell in love with (Faehn) right away," Corey said.

Corey was able to relate to Faehn, whose gymnastics background closely mirrors Corey's.

The feeling was mutual, to be sure.

Faehn still remembers grilling hot dogs and hamburgers on her recruiting visit and the immediate comfort level between the two.

"I just kept thinking, 'Wow, if she comes to Florida, that would be amazing,'" Faehn said.

It didn't take long for Corey to commit to UF. Once again, Corey had a hill to climb as the only freshman in her class.

She may have been the lone freshman, but her work ethic was that of a decorated veteran.

Practice had ended, other gymnasts had left, but Corey was still there, whether it was for conditioning, extra conditioning or anything else.

It paid off.

"It was one amazing competition after another," Faehn recalled.

In her freshman year, Corey was named a three-time All-American on balance beam, floor exercise and in the all-around category.

"I was just really proud of her," Faehn said. "I thought she did an unbelievable job, especially going it alone."

Nine All-American titles later, and Corey is on the verge of ending her career as one of the greatest gymnasts at UF. Her picture hangs in the Ted Cromm Gymnastics Studio as the model of hard work and determination.

Long after Corey is done at UF, her legacy will include more than just her competitive nature, awards, ballet-like gymnastics or event titles.

She'll be remembered for her down-to-earth, unabashed personality.

"I'm a girl who will cut my own grass wearing a dress," Corey said. "I'm not scared to get dirty doing a man's job, but still enjoy looking good doing it."

She'll be remembered as the girl who never accepted anything less than the absolute best.

And she'll surely be remembered as the girl who, come meet night, had a Michael Jordan-esque fire in her eyes that burns you to the core.

Don't let that glare intimidate you though. It's reserved only for meet nights.

Any other day, that fiery gaze is replaced by a warm, sincere expression, and that competitive scowl is swapped with a fun-loving, caring smile.

"I want people to come to me if they want help," Corey said. "I enjoy doing things for others."

Don't believe her? Take it from someone who's known her longer than she's been doing gymnastics.

"If I ever need anything, I know she would be there for me," DeMuzzio said.

So when Corey is honored Friday against Michigan in her last meet at the O'Connell Center, know that it's been a 14-year roller coaster ride with ups unmatched by any vault jump, downs worse than any beam-biting fall and sacrifices greater than any three-hour drive.

"It's been an amazing journey for us and for (Corey), and I'm just sorry that it's over," Karen said. "She's really going to miss it."

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