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Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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High School Sports

It's a balancing act: Helen Wong excels in school, sports, community life

Seattle Times staff

BELLEVUE — Freshmen sashay and struggle through their new floor routine. Sophomores hang nervously from the bars. Juniors work to find the right launching point on the vault.

Amid the bustle of teammates and the roar of floor-routine music at Sammamish's gymnastics practice, Helen Wong stands on the beam alone. She is calm, graceful and elegant. The senior is focused and in her own world.

On the beam, and in her life, Wong focuses on one task at a time.

This is no ordinary 17-year-old. Not only is Wong captain of the Sammamish gymnastics team, she is a threat to win this season's Class 3A/2A all-around state championship after a third-place finish as a junior. Those credentials alone are impressive.

But Wong is also the senior class president. Editor of the school newspaper. Captain of the cheerleading squad. Carries a 3.96 grade-point average. And recently founded a community-service program — Odle Outreach — to mentor eighth-graders and prepare them for the adjustment to high school.

The three-inch scar that traces the curve of her elbow is the only noticeable imperfection on this zealous overachiever.

The scar is the reason Wong spent two years away from the only sport she has ever known. And it is one reason she realized early there is more to life than sports.

Like most high-level gymnasts, Wong spent much of her childhood tumbling and twirling in the gym of her club team. She loved her sport, but as years passed and friend's birthdays were missed, Wong began to re-evaluate.

Midway through her seventh-grade year, Wong fell from the uneven bars — her nemesis — dislocating her elbow and breaking the growth plate off a bone in her forearm.

"The first decision to let go of gymnastics was probably the hardest thing I had to do up to that point in my life," said Wong, who still has two screws near her elbow from the surgery. "When I quit, it wasn't just letting go of the sport. I had gotten to the point where I valued being happy and having a diverse lifestyle. I was living in the gym and always coming home tired. I wanted to be happy and that was part of the decision."

Her club coaches, John and Tammy Carney, respected Wong's decision and didn't push her to return. But they didn't let her walk away without a subtle hint.

The couple gave Wong a book about Shannon Miller, who worked through nearly the exact injury to win five Olympic medals.

"I remember him (John Carney) saying, 'You have so much natural talent and so much potential, don't let this hold you back,' " Wong said. "That made me want to go back so bad."

Two years after the injury, she was at the Sammamish gym, spinning on the balance beam as gracefully as a ballerina in a music box.

It should come as no surprise that the beam, a four-inch wide tightrope, has been mastered by Wong. She is the most balanced of teenagers, on and off the beam.

It takes a courageous person to even walk across a beam, let alone perform a back-handspring series that is one of the most crisp in the state.

"She is very steady," Sammamish Coach Jerry Penney said. "She is very confident up there. It takes the kind of person who keeps themselves under control and who can maintain balance. She apparently has an innate ability to stay balanced and stay focused on the beam."

Indeed, her composure, confidence and balance — in and out of the gym — may be inherited from a family possessing all those traits.

Her sister, Renee, a 22-year old senior and political-science major at Western Washington, is so proud of her sibling she stops by practice to watch her and say "Hi." She also worries that Helen is trying to be too balanced.

"If I had one piece of sisterly advice for her it would be, 'Let other people help you,' " Renee said. "She tries to take on so much by herself. She's hesitant to ask people for advice because she wants to help other people and do everything on her own."

On the beam, Helen Wong is alone with her thoughts. She might think about homework in one of her two advanced placement courses. She might think about what to write for the school paper. She might wonder how she can prevent another student from dropping out of high school.

She doesn't let those thoughts break her focus. She spins on the four-inch platform unwavering, returning to where she started without so much as a wobble.

She is, after all, balanced.

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