WHEATON – When she was four years old, Shea Mahoney was darting between jazz and Irish dance classes, cheerleading and countless other activities.
But even at such a young age, there was only one thing she truly loved: her Mommy and Me gymnastics class.
"We tried everything," Mahoney said. "But it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. I would flip around the house all the time. Now I can't picture myself doing other things."
Her love of the sport and persistence in her training has paid off: Mahoney, now a 15-year-old freshman at St. Francis High School, recently made the U.S. Junior Olympics team for her third place performance at the Junior Olympics National Championships last month.
"There are times that I hate all the work, but I love it so much at the same time," Mahoney said. "I love getting new skills and continuing to try and excel and succeed, and that's always kept me going."
Her road to nationals has been a long one. What started out as a Mommy and Me class with her mother, Shannon Mahoney, has turned into a four and a half hour a day commitment, and included a hospital stint only a year before her biggest success.
After Shea broke her foot in the sixth grade, she decided that she wanted to invest more in her passion. She and her mother explored various gym options and found Legacy Elite Gymnastics, run by Chinese Olympic medalists and spouses Jiani Wu and Yuejiu Li. Shea credits their coaching for the success she has seen throughout her career.
Under Wu's tutelage, Shea participated in regional and state competitions in seventh grade, and was poised to perform at regionals again in eighth grade after an undefeated season, when she fell ill.
Though she was petitioned into the competition based on of her previous success, she didn't feel any better after several doctor visits. Eventually, a doctor realized her appendix had ruptured, and Shea had to undergo surgery and sit out the rest of the season.
"It was a real learning experience for me," she said. "That was scary. It really made me appreciate the chances I have, and this time last year, I didn't think all this was possible."
She eventually recovered, nabbing first place at state and second place at regionals en route to her showing at nationals this year.
"Going into nationals, I had nothing to lose – I just tried to go in with an 'excited to be here' attitude and I think that helped me," Shea said.
Shannon says that her daughter had to make sacrifices to get to where she is now, but has balanced it all well. St. Francis allowed Shea to have a study hall her final period so she can leave early for practice at Legacy in Carol Stream.
"She is a very positive person on and off the mat," Shannon said. "That's what's carried her to success. She is such a hard worker and enjoys working hard."
Shea says that she couldn't survive without her family support, especially her mom, who drives her an hour to school in the morning and an hour to practice at night. She even asks her mom to tie the ribbon in her hair during competitions for good luck.
"My mom has meant everything to my career. She's my rock, and her being there for me has meant the world," she said.