Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Annapolis gymnast makes strong showing Panthers' Clemons overcomes cerebral palsy


When Annapolis gymnast Jacob Clemons finished his routine on the rings at last week's county boys meet, he dropped into the arms of Panthers coach Neill Russell as the pair tumbled to the mat.

This wasn't the way Russell expected Clemons to dismount. The plan, it seems, was for the senior to wait for his coach to reach up and gently lower him, then turn to the judge and raise his right hand in the traditional salute.

"If he has any more surprises for me, he's going to have to tell me," Russell said, laughing.

What surprised Russell even more was Clemons' score of 3.1, good for 24th place and an integral part of Annapolis' 136.2-132.9 win over runner-up Old Mill.

Not bad for someone taking part in his first competition. Even better for someone with cerebral palsy.

Clemons, 18, was born with the condition, which is characterized by nerve and muscle dysfunctions that have caused atrophy in his legs. He had practiced with the team for much of the season before making his debut at the county meet, and today he hopes to provide the points necessary for Annapolis to successfully defend its state-regional title at Hammond High School.

The 5-foot-1, 110-pound Clemons led his teammates into the Chesapeake gymnasium that afternoon for the ceremonial march and introductions. He gripped his silver crutches as tightly as he would grasp the rings, dragging a set of legs that can travel only short distances without some assistance.

"I was kind of nervous," said Clemons, who transferred to Annapolis from Chesapeake after his junior year. "It's the first time we've marched like that, and it just happened that I was the shortest guy and they put me in front."

Because of his medical condition and strong upper body, he competes solely on the rings, where the lower torso is used far less than in other events.

"I've been reputed to have the strongest arms in school," Clemons said, sitting atop a desk in the auxiliary gymnasium during last Friday's practice. He later would slide the desk closer to the rings and use it to climb onto three thick blue mats that were stacked underneath.

"I've been on these crutches all my life," he said. "That's probably why I got strong."

Russell said, "I would see him every day passing my room, and I noticed he had a whole lot of upper-body strength. I saw Jacob as having the possibility on rings. I'm tickled to death that he came out for the team. I'm really happy for him and the team. Without his 3.1, we could have lost it."

As expected, Clemons drew a crowd as he started his 1 1/2 -minute routine, which included such difficult moves as a front and back lever and planche.

"And he can do an L, which is hard because he has no strength in his legs and hips, but he can do it," Russell said.

And there was the dismount, which accompanied a loud ovation from the spectators.

"He was expecting me to just hang there until he helped me down, but I wanted to do that myself," said Clemons, who was born in South Korea and moved to the United States at age 7. "I don't want anyone to think that he's helping me overtly in any way. I want everyone to know that I can do something simple like that."

It's the not-so-simple maneuvers that cause his teammates to stop whatever they're doing at practice and focus their attention on the rings.

Last week, the Panthers watched as Clemons did an "Olympic move," as Russell called it, by lowering himself through an iron cross to a horizontal hang.

"Before gymnastics season started, I'd see him in the hall and I didn't think very much of it," said junior Mark Cochran. "When I saw him come in here, at first I thought it was a joke. But once I saw him get up on the rings, with the determination he has and the upper-body strength, I'm envious."

"It's amazing for him to get up there and do exactly what I'm trying to do," said junior Antoine Thomas. "When I see how he tries, it makes me try even harder."

Clemons' mother, Judith Neall, never had seen her son on the rings until the county meet. She watched anxiously, she said, thinking to herself, "Oh please, have it work right.

"I really admire his courage," she said. "He is a very independent kind of person and likes to take care of things for himself."

Even if that means using a desk and extra mats to take hold of the rings for the day's two-hour practice.

"I'm pretty self-sufficient. I adapt to things I can't do, and I adapt it to what I can do," he said.

"It's not as debilitating as other stages of CP, so I'm very lucky."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad