Twelve years of hitting the books, -- and the pommel horse, high bar, and other gymnastics equipment -- has finally paid off for Neil Niemi.
Mr. Niemi, an 18-year-old Glenelg High School graduate, has received a full academic scholarship to Ohio State University after more than a decade of tumbling and studying.
A five-time state champion in men's gymnastics, Mr. Niemi achieved his latest state victory this year. He has also competed in the National Junior Olympics.
"He's very tenacious and very focused," said Rick Tucker, Mr. Niemi's coach and owner of Gymnastics Plus. "When there's something to do he sets goals for himself and he knows what direction he wants to go in. He'll go pretty far -- as far as he wants to."
Mr. Niemi plans to compete in college and looks forward to working with the Ohio State coach, Peter Kormann, who won a bronze medal for floor exercises in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
Mr. Niemi says it's not a natural ability that made him the gymnast that he is, but perseverance.
"Determination and hard work is what makes me the athlete, rather than raw talent," he said, adding that competing in the Olympics is not a goal.
"I'm just looking at reality and it's saying that if that [the Olympics] was my path I would have been in Colorado Springs Training Center since I was 10 years old," he said.
His attitude toward gymnastics has transferred to academics.
"He's a very disciplined young man, very conscientious as far as pursuing his studies," said his mother, Ruth Anne Niemi. "Gymnastics has formed his approach as to the way he formed his life. It's created a disciplined personality and that's carried over into academics."
Mr. Niemi maintained a 4.0 grade point average throughout high school. He is a National Merit Scholar and he was one of 14 valedictorians at his graduation. He will also be a University Scholar at Ohio State.
Mr. Niemi began gymnastics when he was only 6 years old in an after-school tumbling class at Bushy Park Elementary. He was encouraged to continue when his skills surpassed those of the other youngsters in the class.
"When he was a freshman in high school, he made the commitment to be a gymnast. You can't do much unless vTC someone's going to be in the gym at that age practicing five
days a week," Mr. Tucker said.
"After he did that he got to improve a lot faster. That made it a little more enjoyable for everyone."
His parents enrolled him in the Gymnastics Plus gym in Columbia where he now practices eighteen hours a week in addition to his full-time job at the John Harland Company.
Mr. Niemi said he has his happiest moments "every time you compete and you dismount and stand up and face the crowd."
"I'm certain it helps him develop a presence about himself, and his ability to present himself," Mrs. Niemi said.
Mr. Niemi had narrowed his selection to four other schools -- including Stanford and Pennsylvania State University -- before choosing Ohio State.
"I picked it because I liked the coach in Ohio. He's a real good coach. I'm thinking about going into physical therapy or sports medicine and those programs there are real good too." he said.