High School Sports

Mount Rainier’s dynamic gymnastics duo brings ‘wow factor’

Expectations are high for Mount Rainier High School gymnasts, Karissa Saelee, left, and Naleia Gomes going into state championships this week.
Expectations are high for Mount Rainier High School gymnasts, Karissa Saelee, left, and Naleia Gomes going into state championships this week. dean.koepfler@thenewstribune.com

One is a shy leader, the other a boisterous newcomer. They are two grades apart, and their best events are totally different.

But when it’s competition time, Mount Rainier High School gymnasts Naleia Gomes and Karissa Saelee have the same goal: “the wow factor.”

“It’s different from other sports,” said Gomes, who like Saelee is a former Level 9 club gymnast. “Not everybody feels they are able to do it, so when you can, it’s like ‘Wow, look at you; that’s amazing.’ ”

There has been no shortage of wowing this season as Gomes, a junior, and Saelee, a freshman, have dominated the Class 4A North Puget Sound League. They head to the state meet as the top two all-around finishers out of West Central District championships.

They also helped Mount Rainier qualify as a team in the Class 4A meet.

“Having me and Naleia be the top two, the team counts on us,” Saelee said, “so it’s kind of scary. But the pressure is good.”

Rams coach Ali Kestle said it is fun watching the pair share the spotlight. While Gomes won districts, Saelee took the league title.

“It keeps it interesting for everyone,” she said with a laugh. “They’re good about pushing each other.”

Saelee agreed, saying she likes having her biggest competition come from her own team.

“It’s nice to have someone who knows how I feel coming from the same place,” she said. “(Gomes) was in high school a year before me, so she has been able to guide me.”

And Gomes was thrilled to be able to call Saelee a teammate once more. They competed together at Kent’s Metropolitan Gymnastics. So they were used to seeing each other every day.

Kestle said in 15 seasons with Mount Rainier, she has coached a lot of high-level gymnasts, but that Gomes and Saelee are among the most humble.

Gomes finished in fourth place in the all-around at the 4A state championships at the Tacoma Dome last year, trailing three Woodinville gymnasts. And Saelee’s success led Kestle to believe they could both be in the top three at state when the 4A competition begins on Thursday in the Tacoma Dome’s Exhibition Hall.

The last time Kestle had a duo as strong as this was in 2012, when Baylee Hamilton won the all-around 4A title and Cheyenne Gavino took sixth.

Gomes’ strongest events are the floor exercise and the balance beam — the latter of which she feels is unique. Gomes won the district title on the beam last weekend with a score of 9.6 out of 10.

“It’s only so wide, so you can only do so much without being scared,” she said. “But once you overcome the fear, it’s a great feeling.”

Saelee is the Rams’ star vaulter, which she admits isn’t her favorite. She won the district title in the vault with a score of 9.525. She prefers to fly on the uneven bars, but Saelee said she has benefited from doing it in club.

“I was working on a harder vault,” said Saelee, who also won the district title in the floor exercise with a score of 9.5. “So coming to high school and being able to mellow it down, it kind of comes easier to me.”

No matter the event, Kestle said she can count on the duo to not get frazzled.

“We don’t have to do a lot of mental coaching,” she said. “It’s like ‘OK, we’re good.’ They’ve been in it for a long time.”

Having already placed fourth at the state all-around last year, Gomes said she’s feeling confident returning to the Dome this weekend.

And Saelee, the freshman? She said she isn’t fazed, either.

“I don’t think it’s really about your age,” she said. “I don’t think being younger makes it harder for you to be better.”

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