About 11 years ago, Shawn Beal sat beside the pool at Hillsmere Shores in Annapolis watching her 5-year-old son attempt a flip on the diving board.
A.J. Beal, then 5, sat and watched high school boys tumble repeatedly off the springboard. After mustering up the courage, he went for a flip. Much to his mother's amazement, A.J. executed a “beautiful” flip and she immediately enrolled him in a gymnastics class.
“He always had a lot of natural athleticism and a strong tumbling, aerial sense. I enrolled him in a gymnastics class and he loved it,” Shawn Beal said.
Fast forward to the present and A.J. is going to compete in the Junior Olympic National Championships for the third year in a row. The championships will be held in in Cincinnati, OH, from May 8-13.
Standing 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighing about 150 pounds, the South River junior and Mayo resident is taking on the best young gymnasts in the country. He will compete in six events—rings, vault, parallel bars, high bar, pummel horse and the floor exercise.
At the Junior Nationals in Cincinnati, A.J. will face some of the most talented competitors in the country as a level 10 gymnast. The level 10 status is the highest an athlete can achieve prior to becoming an "elite" gymnast in the Olympics or international trials.
A.J. said that despite the high level of competition, many of the athletes are great friends.
“To be honest, the meets are kind of like a hangout. The real reward is just getting there,” A.J. said. “The atmosphere is more of a reward than anything you can win at nationals.”
At last year’s junior nationals, A.J. placed 69th overall and 29th on the high bar—his first year competing as level 10 gymnast.
A.J. started out like most kids, trying to figure out which sport he preferred the most. After excelling in gymnastics, he was hooked.
“It just became something I loved. It wasn’t about the competition. I just loved the training,” A.J. said. “I’d come home sore, but I got a little addicted to the adrenaline. The whole feeling—feeling yourself on the bar, connecting to it—it’s all very fluid.”
In school, A.J. said he’s sometimes known as “the gymnast guy.” Prior to bulking up and filling out as muscular athlete, the 16-year-old said it wasn’t always “cool” to be a gymnast.
As he started winning more and more competitions in middle school, Beal was also ridiculed by some of his peers at school. In sixth grade, he said classmates would insult him for loving gymnastics. All that stopped though once he hit puberty.
“Once they started noticing the muscles, it changed a bit,” A.J. said.
Now as a young man, A.J.'s hard physique doesn’t come easy.
He spends at least 20 hours a week training either in the weight room or at his gym, Top Flight, located in Columbia. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, A.J. wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and pushes his body to its limit with afternoon training. A.J.'s trainers, Oleg Bezrodny and Dmitriy Gavrilyuk, ensure he’s giving 100 percent even when he’s not feeling up to the challenge.
As just a warm-up, A.J. and his teammates at Top Flight start with a set of 50 pushups, 25 “V” ups, 25 dips, two sets of 15 pullups, rope climbs and seven handstands in a row. The workout is demanding, but he said the results that come from it make the sweat worthwhile.
“At nationals, you’re competing with your heroes. You come back from nationals more inspired to work,” A.J. said.
When it comes to downtime, A.J. said he’s not sure if he actually has any. And despite long days and busy weekends, his hectic schedule hasn’t caused any struggles in the classroom.
For the second year in a row, A.J. was named as a First Team Academic All-American through USA Gymnastics, an award given to student athletes with a GPA of 3.85 or higher.
While in Cincinnati, A.J. hopes to offer a performance that gets the attention of college recruiters—particularly the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I’m not going to apply to any college without a gymnastics program,” A.J. said. “Navy is my number one choice.”
Between school, the ROTC program at Annapolis High, training and gymnastics, A.J. said he doesn’t mind the grueling schedule as long as he gets to compete.
“I sleep on the weekends,” he said.