Lilianna Dyer's foray into acrobatic gymnastics at age 9 had a humble beginning.
"I used to look up YouTube videos of gymnastics," she recalled. "So I kind of taught myself how to do it from the videos. I just always thought it was amazing."
Since then, Dyer has teamed with Cristin Connerney and Emma Bentov-Lagman, and in the two years they have worked together, the trio has enjoyed considerable success in acrobatic gymnastics.
In only their third competition as a team last May, they captured the silver medal in the Women's Group (age 13-19) at the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique ACRO World Cup in Geneva. They won their group again at the USA Gymnastics Championships in Greensboro, N.C., in June and are undefeated on U.S. soil.
Next month, the trio will travel to Putian, China, where they will be one of the favorites to earn a gold medal in the World Acrobatic Gymnastics Championships.
"Growing up, I never thought that I would be one of the people to do things like this," said Dyer, a 17-year-old senior at Broadneck who practices at 1st Class Gymnastics in Annapolis with Connerney, a 17-year-old senior at Archbishop Spalding, and Bentov-Lagman, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Bates Middle School in Annapolis. "But then when I came here and saw that everyone supported and loved me, I knew I could one day be one of the people who could do this sort of thing. So it's just really amazing."
Dyer excels despite a congenital heart defect. Diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis — a narrowing of the aortic valve that reduces blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body — five days after birth, Dyer will eventually have to undergo open-heart surgery for aortic valve replacement.
But that is years down the road, and Dyer's primary focus is the world championships in China from March 21 to April 5 — an objective that seemed a distant prospect when she tried out at 1st Class Gymnastics in 2007.
"There's a lot of pressure, but this has been our goal for the whole [time] we've been doing this sport," she said. "So we might as well go there and do the best we can and show everyone that we're going for a reason."
Dyer's arrival on April 26, 1998, at Harbor Hospital in Baltimore went smoothly, according to her mother, Jessica. But during a routine examination, doctors heard a murmur in Lilianna's heart. Although the doctors tried not to alarm Jessica Dyer and calmly recommended that she visit her pediatrician within a week of being discharged, a nurse offered Dyer — who was 21 at the time — advice.
"As we were leaving the hospital, one of the nurses kind of pulled me aside and said, 'Listen, I really want you to take this seriously. I know they're saying it's not big deal, but something like this happened with my son, and it turned out to be really serious,' " Dyer recalled. "So I was terrified."
During a visit with a second pediatric cardiologist, Dyer was told that Lilianna suffered from aortic stenosis and required immediate surgery. Five days after she was born, Lilianna Dyer underwent a balloon angioplasty at Inova Fairfax Children's Hospital, where a wire was inserted through her left side and a tiny balloon was inflated to widen the aortic valve.
The operation was a success, but doctors advised Jessica Dyer not to allow her daughter to become a weightlifter or a marathon runner. Dyer still remembers what the first cardiologist she consulted told her about Lilianna's athletic future.
"She told me, 'She will run the race, but she will never win,'" Dyer said, bristling at the memory. "It was very upsetting."
Said Lilianna Dyer: "I don't remember too much about it. Just from what my parents have told me, when I was 5 days old, I had to get surgery on my heart because my aortic valve is too narrow. So it's hard for blood to pump through it. So when I was 5 days old, I had surgery. If I hadn't had that surgery, I would have died."
Lilianna played soccer briefly but dropped the sport. She preferred watching the gymnastics videos on the Internet.
The father of a girl whom Jessica Dyer had baby-sat suggested Lilianna try out at 1st Class Gymnastics. Sarah Thomas, who is the trio's co-coach along with Amy Grear, said Lilianna occasionally battled periods of exhaustion caused by her heart and stress.
"Last year was her junior year in high school, and it was really tough," Thomas said. "She really struggled coming into practices. She was exhausted because she had a huge course load, she was trying to train Elite for the first time, and it was really tough at times to keep her healthy in terms of being able to do what she needed to do for school and in the gym."
Grear said Dyer's heart hasn't been a problem recently.
"I think she's learned how to self-regulate and internalize it," Grear said. "She knows when she needs to take a rest, and that hasn't happened in years."
Dyer said there have been times when she has become tired or dizzy. The scarier moments are when she has chest pains, but the symptoms have proved temporary.
"I have heart pains sometimes, but it's not too bad," she said. "I just have this attitude that I will push through it, I guess."
Connerney, who has been Dyer's teammate for the past four years, said Dyer doesn't complain or make excuses about her heart condition.
"She never shows it," Connerney said. "She always works as hard as everyone else. She always does as much as everyone else. You wouldn't know it if you saw her practice."
Jessica Dyer said acrobatic gymnastics has had a positive effect on her daughter. Lilianna Dyer added definition to her arms and abdomen within the first four months and has overcome performance anxiety.
Jessica Dyer will be the only family member making the trip to China and is trying to raise money for the $10,000 price tag via youcaring.com/jessica-and-lily-dyer. She said she gets emotional when thinking about Lilianna's journey.
"I never limited her, and I never imagined it could be like this," she said. "I would have never in a million years pictured that she would be here. It's so cool. I'm so proud of her and happy for her. … Everything she has worked for has come down to this trip. I'm ecstatic."