Kelsy Kurfirst didn’t know what to expect when she began her high school gymnastics career.
Four years later, we know what to expect from Kurfirst – sustained excellence.
The Lyons Township High School senior gymnast has already secured her place in school history and she’s not done yet.
Kurfirst has a great chance of adding to her collection of nine state medals when she competes in her final state meet Feb. 20-21 at Palatine.
What does a girl who already has won three individual state championships and led the Lions to their first two team state titles aspire to?
“I try not to think about it too much, but obviously it’s my senior year,” Kurfirst said. “I want to do the best routines I’m capable of doing.
“I’d like to throw in a couple new skills and just go out with a bang and see if I can medal again on a couple of events, maybe all-around, so we’ll see.”
Kurfirst, who began gymnastics at age four and started competing when she was 6, has been a model of consistency, versatility and achievement since her freshman year. She won a state title on the uneven bars as a rookie and followed that with four-medal performances in each of the next two seasons.
Kurfirst won floor exercise as a sophomore, when she took second on vault and in the all-around and third on balance beam. She repeated as floor exercise champ as a junior, adding third-place showings on beam, vault and all-around.
The Lions won state in both years, marking the first time LTHS has won back-to-back state championships in a girls sport.
“It was amazing,” Kurfirst said. “Honestly, coming into high school gymnastics freshman year I had no idea what to expect.
“Each year is different, but those two years were just so special as far as our team dynamics and group harmony. That’s what I think carried us to the first place podium, just that we were so cohesive as a team and it was amazing to be able to share that with everyone on the team.”
LTHS coach Kari Karubas is grateful that Kurfirst chose to share her prodigious talent with the Lions for four years. Two other recent stars, Katie Carling and Michelle Cozza, stuck to club gymnastics until their junior years, so having a veteran presence like Kurfirst is invaluable.
“My favorite part of Kelsy is every year she’s solid and she’s mentally and emotionally tough, so that leads by example by itself,” Karubas said. “But she’s a senior and she’s still trying to get new skills.
“She’s very vocal and she’s kind of whipping these little freshmen into shape. She’s such a sweet girl, so it’s done with kindness and friendship, but she’s doing so much. She’s working harder than anyone else.”
Kurfirst is a power gymnast who uses her explosiveness to showcase skills that make her arguably the best gymnast in school history.
Janne Klepek, who won 19 state medals from 1982-85, was a three-time state all-around champion. But Kurfirst is performing tricks, such as the layout Yurchenko vault, that were illegal at the high school level until several years ago because of inadequate equipment.
“[Kurfirst’s vault] just launches,” Karubas said. “She’s got this beautiful hang time, this great body position. She really sets herself apart with that.”
Kurfirst’s other routines also are impressive. On uneven bars she swings a full blind, half blind and bail to half-out dismount while her beam is highlighted by a flip-flop layout to full twisting dismount. She is adding a fourth tumbling pass to her floor exercise, which already includes a double back, double full and double pike.
Judges have taken notice. Kurfirst’s season-best all-around score of 38.45 (out of a possible 40) makes her a legitimate threat to win her first all-around title.
“I set high expectations for myself and I’m usually never really satisfied with what I’m doing and how I place, so that kind of pushes me every day to want more for myself and also for the people I’m surrounded by,” Kurfirst said. “My coaches, my teammates – they’re constantly pushing me to be the best I can be also, so it’s not just me. It’s the entire environment that’s made me a good gymnast.”
The team environment at LTHS couldn’t be better and that is largely due to Kurfirst’s leadership. Even with bars state champion Cozza and all-around runner-up Carling having graduated and bars state medalist Olivia McGann missing her senior year following shoulder surgery, the Lions are in the hunt for another trophy.
This is the first year Kurfirst has been the clear leader and she has embraced the increased responsibility.
“This year is the first time the newcomers outnumber the veterans, so it’s just me, Kelly [Ryser] and Liv that have been on the varsity team before,” Kurfirst said. “So it’s a lot different in that respect, but I think all of the girls have adapted pretty quickly.
“They kind of understand how high school gymnastics works by now and because of that I think we’re all able to kind of lead and help each other with competitions and practice. So I don’t feel like I’m the only leader and that helps to have everyone by my side, too.
“We all came from club gymnastics and you don’t get that [camaraderie] from club gymnastics, so coming to high school I think is better because you’re working as a team and for the team and that’s what makes it so much more special.”
Kurfirst’s career has been special and it won’t end this month. She will compete next year for Cornell, where she plans to major in engineering.
“I’m really excited about that,” Kurfirst said. “I work hard in both academics and athletics.”
Kurfirst, who is ranked in the top 10 in a class of 1,020 students, learned that work ethic from her older brother, Kyle, who helped the LTHS boys soccer team win its first state championship in 2009 and recently finished up his playing career at the University of Chicago.
“We’re both pretty athletic,” Kurfirst said. “He always pushes me academically and athletically. We’re just competitive by nature.”