April 6, 2002
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Days away from her final Pac-10 Championships, weeks away from the end of her competitive career, Rhonda Robinette, a senior on Arizona State's women's gymnastics team, examines the now-faded newspaper clipping from the East Valley Tribune, circa 1996.
That's her in the photo, middle of the line, standing with her Desert Lights gymnastics club teammates. That's former ASU teammate Becky Acker two behind her. That's current ASU teammate Kari Muth two in front. Directly behind her, that's Katy Herbert, now at Stanford. Directly in front, that's Lindsey Lines, now at Brigham Young.
You can't see it in the photo, but the U.S. Gymnastics team has just won gold in Atlanta. Tucson, Ariz., native Kari Strug has vaulted her way into the American consciousness, sticking her landing on an injured ankle to give the U.S. its medal and to give young girls across the country something to dream about.
Then a junior at Mesa's Red Mountain High, Robinette is already far beyond Olympic dreams. 'Too old' for those, she states in the article. But her gymnastics career isn't over. College awaits.
Yet a 16-year-old Robinette hasn't a clear vision of what's ahead. She has no inclination as to the demands nor the rewards of collegiate gymnastics. She hasn't the faintest idea how her career will end eight years later.
And as it turns out, even the 22-year-old Robinette, who handles this newspaper clipping no more than four weeks away from her ride into the sunset, isn't prepared for what's to come.
Of a possible three meets left - the Pac-10 Championships, the NCAA South Central Regional, the NCAA Championships - she thinks she's guaranteed appearances at two.
Rhonda Robinette's senior season had already been defined by falls. First there was Laura Moon's, a grisly fall while working out on uneven bars that resulted in more than 50 stitches and countless hours in the dentist's chair. Coupled with Moon's already scheduled knee surgery, that accident kept one of the Sun Devils' team leaders off the competition floor until February.
And then there were falls on balance beam, too many of them this season by the team as a whole. Falls that kept the Sun Devils from reaching their potential or finding their rhythm.
Going into the Pac-10 Championships, March 23, the end of her career clearly in sight, Robinette had only a few wishes for the remainder of her season. One, that her team would qualify for the NCAA Championships for the 17th time in school history. Two, that she could go out standing up.
'I just want to hit my events,' she said. 'I don't want to fall anymore. I'm sick of falling. I want to go out on a happy note, not on a bad one.'
She had reason to be optimistic. Over the past year, crunch time had brought out the best in Robinette, who gave the Sun Devils some of her most memorable routines at times when the team was most desperately in need.
One of those routines was at the 2001 Central Regional. The Sun Devils got to beam in their final rotation with a slight grasp of second place and the final national championship qualifying spot. Meet host Alabama was running away with first place and electrifying the home crowd with their performances on floor exercise.
As Robinette looked to give ASU its final hit, the moment that the Sun Devils had prepared for all week by blasting stereo manufactured crowd noise during workouts happened in Coleman Coliseum. The Tuscaloosa crowd of 4,720 erupted in praise of a Crimson Tide floor routine, chanting 'Ten!, Ten!, Ten!,' and 'Roooollll Tide!'
'The place was going crazy,' Robinette remembered. 'It was so loud but I blocked it all out. And I remember hitting my routine and thinking, okay, that's the best I can do.'
Her best under pressure gave ASU a 9.825 and a berth to the NCAA Championships. Then-senior teammate Kelly Cowley called Robinette's routine the highlight of the meet and an indication of the team's character.
'That was the best part,' Cowley said. 'That showed why we deserve to go to nationals. That showed that in any situation we can perform and get the job done.'
Although an NCAA Championships berth wasn't directly on the line, the spotlight on Robinette seemed just as bright this season in ASU's 2002 dual with Arizona, March 1, at Wells Fargo Arena.
The last regular season home meet of the year, it was Senior Night for ASU's Robinette and Moon. The Sun Devils were coming off a pair of sub-par performances and trailed their intrastate rivals in the national rakings. They desperately needed a shot of confidence.
The delivery of that shot began with solid rotations on vault and uneven bars. It continued through four beam routines, all 9.8 or better. It was completed by Robinette, who provided nothing less than her best.
'I think I've been so nervous on beam this season, because it seems that if one of us falls its all downhill from there,' she said. 'If one person falls, we all fall. It's just so much more pressure than it's ever been.
'Before I went up, I thought to myself, this is going to be perfect. I try to always think that, but I just had a feeling.'
Her feeling proved true. By the end of her routine, Robinette was the 10th ASU gymnast ever to earn a perfect 10.0, the third to earn a perfect score on beam and the first to do so on that event since 1997.
'When the score went up, I didn't even know what I got, I was just wondering why everyone was going crazy,' Robinette said. 'And then I looked and saw the score and just started crying. I never thought I'd get a 10.'
It's the routine that will define her competitive career not only in her mind, but in that of her teammates.
'That's the moment I'll never forget,' junior Cassidy Vreeke said. 'It was her Senior Night and she was really nervous, but she just stepped up to the plate and nailed it. Seeing her face when she ended, she just knew that it was pretty much a perfect routine.
'After they posted the score I got tears in my eyes. I was so excited for her and it was such a great night for that to happen.'
In a perfect world, Robinette would get a chance at an encore this weekend at the NCAA South Central Regional. She'd get an opportunity to come up big for the second straight time at an NCAA Regional with her second straight perfect-10 at home.
But not all stories end that way, and unfortunately Robinette's doesn't either. At least one of her wishes won't come true.
In a March 28 practice, Robinette lost control of a tumbling series on balance beam, breaking her right arm across the beam before hitting the ground. The sound of her humerus bone cracking could be heard across the gym. The deafening sound was the shock of her teammates, forced to witness another disastrous fall in a season rife with hardships.
But the cries now are theirs, determined to make Robinette's fall the moment that helps them to their feet.
'We said it in our team meeting, we're going to do this for Rhonda,' Vreeke said of qualifying for nationals. 'When Laura went down at the beginning of the year, she was the one that stepped up for us and became a leader. Now we need to do the same for her.'
Said ASU head coach John Spini, who has known Robinette since her youth at Desert Lights, 'She's always been a team player, always putting the team before herself. To have this kind of injury at this point in her career is certainly traumatic, but she's still put the team first coming to workouts and supporting us.
'That's just who she is. She's a very caring, team-oriented individual who will always be a part of this team, supporting this program in mind if not in body.'
Heavily harnessed but not in a cast, Robinette will be there Saturday night when her teammates try to advance to nationals in her honor. For the moment, only her arm hurts. So uncomfortable is her injury, she insisted, it has yet to sink in that she won't compete, that her career is over.
But it will. And for that pain, only her teammates can provide the remedy.
'If they could qualify for nationals, that would mean everything,' she said. 'That would mean everything.'
For someone who has meant everything to them, it seems the least they could do.
ASU Media Relations