Assistant Sports Editor
Surrounded by past and future Olympians, Jon Zirna almost looked out of place. Almost.
The Springfield College standout gymnast, and owner of two school records as a junior, played the part at the United States Gymnastics (USAG) Winter Cup Challenge, an invitational tournament held in Las Vegas. Hosting some of the nations top gymnasts, including Sam Mikulak of Michigan, a former Olympian for Team USA, the Winter Cup is one of multiple invitational tournaments that can serve as a stepping-stone to the Olympics.
“The experience at Winter Cup was unreal,” said Zirna. “When I found out my rotation I was intimidated and excited. I followed (Mikulak). I knew going in that it would be different without my team there cheering me on, but the Michigan team really took me under their wing and supported me the entire meet.”
With the support of Mikulak and the Wolverines, Zirna placed 15th on the pommel horse out of 77 competitors with a score of 14.000, scoring five points towards the national scoring system for future qualifications. Zirna also landed his new vault routine, making the competition all the more exciting.
From two time zones away in Springfield, Mass., the Springfield College gymnastics team watched Zirna with excitement as Zirna stood toe-to-toe with some of the nations best.
“My teammates were amazing,” Zirna said. “They were so supportive of me, all texting me good luck and continued to support me in the training in the gym up until the meet. They were really a motivating force for me in my training.”
And while Zirna was proud to represent his team, his team was equally proud of all he had accomplished in getting there.
“It was surreal seeing one of my best friends competing with Olympians,” said teammate and fellow junior Conor Galvin. “It really didn’t hit me, how special it was, until I actually saw him out there competing and doing his thing with other gymnasts at the highest level. He worked super hard to get invited, so it was satisfying to me as a friend and as a teammate to see that he had a successful meet.”
In order to qualify for the event, Zirna had to meet a qualification all-around score at last season’s conference championship. Despite earning the score at the conference championship, the invitation still came as a surprise to Zirna.
“When I got the invitation to go, I was extremely excited,” Zirna said. “I was surprised and honored to be able to have the opportunity to be at this meet. Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to compete in a meet of this level. To be competing alongside Olympians is something that I will never forget.”
But the invitation was not born in one tournament. Zirna’s never ending work ethic has pushed him to the top of his class.
“He works extremely hard,” Galvin said. “He is one of the few gymnasts on our team that trains in all six events in gymnastics (floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars, high bar). He gives it his all and then some whenever we have practice or a meet. He is so dedicated to the sport and it really shows.”
That dedication to the craft has rubbed off on his teammates.
“Guys will see him doing extra work after practice and they will join in too,” continued Galvin. “We are a really tight knit team and we always try to outwork or out do each other. So seeing Jon, our captain, working his butt off makes everyone else want to emulate him.”
And while performing at one of the nations highest level, Zirna missed having those same teammates by his side. The ones who he worked through thick and thin with were reserved to couches in Springfield.
“The only thing I wish was different was that I wish I was able to share the experience with my team,” Zirna said. “I am so thankful I had to opportunity to go there, as it has definitely given me more experience for how to deal with a meet with such incredible athletes as opponents.”
Marshall Smith-Hastings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org