Brandi Personett stood at the foot of the blue vault runway with a face full of determination. The senior had done this so many times before.
With her team cheering, Personett started her sprint toward the vault.
Arms flailing, she approached her destination, put her hands down, sprung off the vault and propelled herself into the air. Following multiple flips, her feet finally stuck to the blue mat and didn't move.
She raised her arms in the air and stood there for a moment, just to make sure the judges took note of her flawless landing as Rec Hall roared.
In a career filled with accolades and personal achievements for the Penn State women's gymnastics team, Personett had never gotten a perfect score of 10.000 on any event -- until now.
"Finally," assistant coach Jessica Bastardi thought. "Seriously, finally."
Personett had done what she and her coaches considered a perfect vault many times before. Yet a "10" had never flashed up on the scoreboard -- until this Jan. 23 home meet, and then again last Saturday at Pittsburgh.
Personett referred to the Jan. 23 achievement as the best moment in her gymnastics career. But before she scored the first two perfect 10s at Penn State since 2003, many things had to happen and many sacrifices had to be made to mold Personett into the competitor and teammate she is today.
The making of a champion
Personett didn't start gymnastics until she was 8 years old, considered late for gymnasts who have reached her level. Her parents originally put her in dance classes and assumed she would excel because her brother and sister did and are now professional dancers.
They were wrong.
"After many recitals of knocking people over and clearly not understanding the rhythm, they took me out of dance and put me in gymnastics," Personett said with a smile. "And I loved it."
Her first gym was a small facility near her home in Liberty, Mo. Personett remembers it as "super ghetto" with a single balance beam made out of green carpet. She said if a gymnast bounced the wrong way on the trampoline, he or she would end up outside. Nevertheless, it was her first gym, and she loved it.
Ken Personett, Brandi's father, said his daughter likes to tell a story to girls just starting gymnastics of her initial lack of success. When Personett was competing at Level 5 out of a possible 10, her entire club team qualified for nationals except for her because she couldn't make it over the vault.
Now things are different, as the senior is No. 1 in the nation on the event, averaging a 9.925.
Personett said she finally began to excel when she was 11 years old, after she took a year off from competing, at a larger gym called GAGE in Blue Springs, Mo.
While the rest of the girls at the gym were competing, Personett just trained and mastered her basics.
"It was just like a light switched on for her," Ken Personett said.
Realizing their daughter had the potential to reach the Elite level -- the highest level of gymnastics for her age -- the Personetts decided to make a drastic change. They searched the country for a new gym where their daughter could excel, before settling on Brown's Gymnastics of Houston.
Ken Personett quit his job at Hallmark Cards and Viki Personett quit her job as a first grade teacher and the couple moved their family to Katy, Texas, where both found new jobs in their respective fields. Personett thought her parents made the change because her father had been relocated. Later on, she found out the real reason.
"It does sound crazy to do something like that," Ken Personett said.
"It's not like we're psychopaths or anything like that. We've always been of the opinion that we'll do whatever we can for the kids."
At Brown's, the young gymnast's workload increased. She went from spending 19 hours in the gym a week as a Level 9 gymnast to 40 hours as an Elite.
After competing at Brown's for awhile, Personett switched gyms multiple times before settling in at Champion Gymnastics Academy, where she stayed for the remainder of high school.
Though she was successful at the Elite level and was on track to vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, Personett said she might have done things differently knowing what she knows now.
That's partly because she had to put her social life on hold and start home-schooling, but mostly because of unforeseen circumstances that ended her Olympic hopes.
During her junior year of high school, Personett tore her Achilles tendon while training a floor exercise, crushing her dream of representing the nation.
She could have given up on gymnastics after the career-threatening injury, which she said usually entails a yearlong recovery.
But she loved the sport too much to stop now.
Pure desire to get back fueled her recovery, and though the injury occurred in April of her junior year of high school, Personett was back in action by January of her senior year, competing a level below Elite at Level 10.
Landing in Happy Valley
With Olympic dreams, Personett hadn't even considered going to college. Most of the big gymnastics programs had shown interest in her, but it wasn't until after her injury that she considered competing collegiately. She began her search and realized being a student-athlete provided a team atmosphere, which she loved.
She narrowed her choices down to 11 schools, including Alabama, Utah and Michigan.
Penn State was not included on her list, even though Nittany Lion coach Steve Shephard had expressed interest.
How Personett ended up at Penn State is something both the senior and her coach laugh about now.
Personett had been interested in Michigan as a possible destination, so she e-mailed the Wolverines' assistant coach Scott Sherman. Or so she thought.
"It came to me by mistake, and we had been recruiting her and she had kind of dumped us," Shephard said.
"So I was like, 'Well, I'm not Scott but we'd really love to have you to come on a visit to Penn State.' "
Deciding she couldn't blow off Penn State, Personett sent Shephard a highlight video. That's how it all started.
Fresh off her injury, Personett received a visit from Lions assistant coach Jessica Bastardi.
Still recovering, Personett was confined to the bars and jumping on the trampoline.
"It was just for us to show her how important she was to us," Bastardi said.
"For me to go down and see her and visit her in her gym and make that special effort because she was a special gymnast and we wanted her to come."
Personett immediately clicked with Bastardi and the gymnast said if she hadn't loved the coach, she might not have ended up in Happy Valley.
Soon after, Bastardi convinced Personett to come for an official visit to Penn State.
"I think we have the same values and the same sense of humor," Bastardi said.
"So we kind of got along right away."
Personett visited on an August weekday, and Ken Personett said the team pulled out the red carpet for his daughter.
"She got to go out on the football field, and they played the highlight reel of the year before for women's gymnastics on the big jumbotron as she sat on the 50-yard-line with the other girls who were already on the team," Ken Personett said.
After the visit, it was down to Penn State and Utah.
Shephard flew down to Texas to seal the deal and went to visit a recruit in her high school cafeteria for the first time in his career. Personett doesn't remember the exact conversation she and the coach had when she committed while eating Subway, but said her girlfriends at the lunch table all cheered.
"She was impressed and has never looked back," Ken Personett said.
Once arriving at Penn State, Personett's work ethic immediately impressed her coaches, especially Bastardi.
"She's super talented," the assistant coach said.
"But a lot of times when you have a lot of talent, people don't tend to work as hard because everything comes so easily. But she loves gymnastics and she loves hard work.
"She does as much as anybody or more even though she probably doesn't even have to, because she's that talented."
That season, Personett was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after she won the conference championship on the vault and in the all-around. Though the team fell short of nationals, Personett qualified as an individual.
Ken Personett said his daughter is not one to talk about her personal success and all she cares about is the team. It should be no surprise to those close to Personett that she described her experience going to nationals alone in one word: awful.
"It was literally the worst experience of my life going to nationals that year," she said.
"The team was so close, and we were such a close-knit group that I didn't even comprehend the fact that I was going by myself for awhile."
That experience was fuel to the fire for Personett and her teammates to make it to nationals as a team the next year.
However, her sophomore season ended in similar fashion to the year before -- with the Lions falling short by a small margin and Personett going to nationals as an individual.
The gymnast initially refused to go alone again, but ended up going after Penn State let her bring teammate Lindsay Borkan along as company.
Thankfully for Personett, the Lions qualified last season and the then-junior was not forced to go to nationals by herself.
"It was a huge relief for all of us," Shephard said.
"I think her head would have exploded if we missed it again."
Following her junior campaign, where she led the team in the all-around with a regular season average of 39.285, Personett was named the Big Ten Gymnast of the Year, an award normally given to a senior.
"For the coaches to step out of the box, and that norm that they always give it to a senior and give it to a junior, that was really an honor," Personett said.
One of the best ever
This season, Personett hasn't missed a beat. Her two perfect 10s on the vault and consistent 9.900 scores on the floor exercise alone put her in the running for Big Ten Gymnast of the Year again.
Shephard, in his 18th season as head coach, said Personett ranks up with Katie Rowland and Missy Leopoldus as the best in program history.
Bastardi has been on the team as either an athlete or a coach for more than 20 years and agreed Personett is one of the best ever.
"I think her success has shown that," said Bastardi, who Personett credits with having a huge impact on her gymnastics career.
"I think she's got it all."
Personett said she wants to be remembered but at the same time isn't sure she likes the added pressure of being one of the best ever.
"I want to make a difference at Penn State and make an impact," Personett said.
"I want girls to strive to beat that, just because that means Penn State did better."
Personett has already made a difference in the eyes of senior co-captain Allie Southard, her best friend on the team and roommate of three years.
When Southard seriously injured her back before their sophomore year, Personett kept her roommate confident and made her believe she would recover, even though people had said Southard's gymnastics career was over. With Personett's support, her roommate recovered and now co-captains the Penn State squad.
"Brandi is one of the most hard-working athletes I've ever met," Southard said. "She pushes me in the gym and supports all of her teammates and just wants to see everybody succeed and the team succeed."
Personett wants to see the team succeed so much that she made a preseason guarantee for the outcome of this season -- a first-ever Big Ten title and a Super Six appearance for the Lions, currently ranked No. 13.
The season is six meets old, and the Lions have been slowly but surely climbing the rankings and finally seem to have hit their stride after a slow start. When asked if she stood by her guarantee from a few months earlier, Personett's answer was simple: "Heck yes."