Cal's Kyle Zemeir competes in floor exercise in a dual meet March 18 against Oklahoma.
Cal's Kyle Zemeir competes in floor exercise in a dual meet March 18 against Oklahoma. (GoldenBearSports.com)

Kyle Zemeir's high school life was far from traditional. The gymnast spent 31/2 hours after school most nights training at Columbia's Top Flight Gymnastics. He missed his junior prom at Marriotts Ridge because he was competing in the Junior Olympic National Championships.

Not much about the Ellicott City native's priorities have changed since he moved across the country to continue his gymnastics career at California. Zemeir, a rising senior, will celebrate his 21st birthday Thursday, but don't expect to find him out partying.

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Instead, Zemeir will be preparing for the P&G Gymnastics Championships, USA Gymnastics' national championships held Thursday through next Sunday in Indianapolis. Zemeir is one of three competitors from Maryland, along with Crownsville's Maggie Musselman and Baltimore's Donnell Whittenburg.

"I'm just excited to compete on such a big stage. It's everyone's dream when they are a kid to compete at P&G's, because it's the biggest meet that the U.S. puts on, besides the Olympic qualifiers next year," said Zemeir, one of 20 college gymnasts in a 36-athlete field that includes Olympic Training Center residents. "It's just cool to be in such a great atmosphere with the best gymnasts in the country."

Zemeir was only 2 weeks old when his mother, Annette, brought him along to Top Flight Gymnastics for her parent-child class with his then-2-year-old sister, Lindsey.

It wasn't long before he started mimicking his sister. Kyle watched Lindsey do flips, so he figured he had to try, too — around the house, without help. He was 18 months old when his mother signed him up for his own classes.

"He naturally assumed he would be going into that gym because that's what his sister did," Annette said. "We were the fun trio at the playground. At 3, he was crossing the [monkey] bars."

Kyle Zemeir tried baseball, basketball, soccer and lacrosse growing up, but gymnastics stuck. He competed in his first competition at 6, and little has stopped him since.

As a freshman at Marriotts Ridge, he broke the hamate bone in both wrists. "There were small pieces of bone in different spots of his hand that they had to go in and remove," Annette said.

He competed for nearly the whole school year anyway, putting off surgery until the summer.

Then came the broken heel the first meet of his senior season. Zemeir wasn't able to stick landings until the state meet, his mother said.

When it came time for college, Zemeir initially wanted to attend the Naval Academy. That surprised his mother, who said Zemeir just wanted "to be able to take care of people." In the end, he decided he valued his academics and gymnastics career too much. He chose Cal and now majors in neurobiology, with hopes of attending medical school after he graduates next year and becoming a doctor in the Navy.

After his freshman season in Berkeley, Brett McClure, a member of the U.S. team that won silver in the 2004 Olympics, was hired to take over the head coaching duties. It didn't take long for Zemeir to stand out.

"It was exhausting for these guys," McClure said. "They could barely walk after a competition or after a training session. Kyle was the one that was done before everybody else and said, 'What's next?' … He was such a huge part in creating this new culture and expectation for the rest of the team that these numbers are manageable, and you have to attack or you are going to get left behind."

McClure remembers the eye contact Zemeir made in their first conversation. He describes the gymnast as someone "genuinely interested in who you are as a person."

The Golden Bears' associate head coach found his team in an unusual position entering last season, without a senior on the roster. He had the team vote for captains, and Zemeir was selected.

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"It was tough at first because I've always had people to look up to," Zemeir said. "Then, all of a sudden, you are put in this position where you have to be the leader, and it's a little bit different from knowing what do and actually doing it."

McClure met with Zemeir to go over what was expected of him and recalled Zemeir being "a little bit terrified." His coach was asking him to grow up even faster.

It took a few meets for Zemeir to settle into the role, but by the end of the season, he had become the vocal leader McClure needed.

"Just seeing his development and his growth in the short amount of time was pretty spectacular," McClure said.

Zemeir saw his dedication pay off at the NCAA championships in April in Norman, Okla. Not only did he finish eighth in the all-around to qualify for the P&G Championships, but Zemeir also helped lead the Bears to the team finals and a fifth-place finish, his favorite moment at Cal.

In the opening session of the championships, "We had one of the best competitions of our life," Zemeir said. "Just to look up there and see us in second place, making it to team finals, was probably the best feeling that I've ever felt."

Before he tries to lead the Golden Bears back as a captain in his final season, though, he'll head to Indianapolis.

"He gets to gain the national recognition that he deserves," McClure said. "He is one of the hardest workers in the sport and through challenges and adversity, aches and pains, injuries, whatever it was, he maintained his confidence that he could always come back and compete at the national level."

Despite being nearly 3,000 miles apart, Zemeir's parents have made it to many of his meets, including all three NCAA championships. This weekend, he will have even more support than usual. Both sets of grandparents will fly to Indianapolis — one from Michigan and another from Connecticut — to join his parents and sister in the Bankers Life Field House crowd. He'll be able to enjoy his 21st birthday with family.

"We couldn't be celebrating at a better place," his mother said.

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