2011-02-20 / Sports

Belanger's not slowing down

By AL EDWARDS
Sports Editor

Biddeford's Ashley Belanger is a gymnast at heart, but she is currently ranked 11th in Maine in the shotput in her first season trying the sport (AL EDWARDS/Journal Tribune)

BIDDEFORD — It's safe to say that Ashley Belanger loves gymnastics.

The 16-year-old must as she routinely makes the 40-minute drive from Biddeford to Atlantic Gymnastics in Portsmouth, N.H.

Some times that love for the sport has her training five days per week, up to 4 and one half hours per day.

Those training sessions became heavily modified late last fall when Belanger began experiencing intense pain in her left wrist. She tried to work through the pain for a while, but found at times she just couldn't.

“I noticed there were some things that I couldn't do because it hurt,” she said. “You experience aches as a gymnast, but this was something different and the pain got gradually worse.”

Doctors diagnosed Belanger with a stress fracture in her left wrist. They placed her wrist in a green cast and told her to rest it.

She rested the wrist, but not her body. She chose to find a second sport to her beloved gymnastics. That sport was indoor track and field.

Belanger, who still trains regularly in floor exercises and other non-wrist-wrenching gymnastics routines, decided to become a shot-putter.

That track event is not one of the easiest to jump into, said Biddeford track coach Ron Ouellette. Good shot-putters usually train years to perfect the technique, learn the physics behind it and gradually become top athletes in the sport.

Not Belanger. In her first year of competition, she won the girls junior shot put Southwestern Championship last Saturday with a throw of 32-10.75. That was her best throw of the season and currently has her ranked 11th in the state. She was also named the league's Most Improved Junior Athlete.

The top thrower in the state is Mt. Ararat's Randi London, who's best throw this season is 39-7.5.

“She has a tremendous upside,” Ouellette said about Belanger. “I am anxious to see how she progresses in spring track. I am surprised that an athlete caught on as quickly as she has.”

Belanger and other shot put coaches credit her gymnastics background for her quick learning curve.

Belanger isn't a typical gymnast. She began the sport at six and through the years has developed into a level 10 gymnast. Gymnasts that reach that level routinely go on to compete at the Division I level in college. The next level is elite, and those are Olympians.

“I don't want to become an elite gymnast,” said the 5-7 Belanger. “I want to continue to have a life.”

That life for the 16-year-old the next few years will include putting the shot, which is a smart decision Thornton Academy girls track coach and former UNH shot-putter Lisa Huntress said.

“What makes her able to catch on so quickly is her ability to use her whole body and drive with her legs, which she has been doing for years as a gymnast,” Huntress said. “She's an athlete, which is crucial to being a good shot-putter. A lot of people think you just go out there and throw, but that couldn't be farther from the truth.”

In addition to the shot put, Belanger has competed in the 55 meter dash, the 40 yard dash and the 200 meter dash. She placed 10th in the junior 200 at the Southwestern Championships with a time of 30.20.

She said next year, when her wrist heals, she will still compete in the shot put, but give up the other events while her gymnastics training will return to 4 and one half hours per day about five days per week during the season.

“I really like the shot put and I think I'm doing well in it,” she said. “I want to stick with it and I'm having fun.”

While the shot put is in her future, gymnastics is still her favorite sport.

After all, she's been successful. Last year she took first in the all-around (36.250) and first on beam (9.175) in the 15-16 age group at the New Hampshire State Championships for the Level 9 team.

It's not a sport she wants to give up.

“I want to do the shot put, I love being a gymnast,” she said. “I can't imagine not doing it.”

And with success like that, who can blame her?

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