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MIT sophomore wins national gymnastics title

Few people probably thought back in the mid 1950's when Joe Rocchio '57, began dating Mary Roan '57, that their union would stock the MIT women's gymnastics team from the late 1980's to the mid-'90s. And while few may have had that foresight, no one could have predicted that Joe and Mary's fourth daughter would become MIT's first national gymnastics champion.

Sheila Rocchio '97 recently captured the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association Division III national championship in the all-around at Hamline (MN) University. Sheila set the MIT record in the combined four events by scoring 36.3 of a possible 40 points. Her accomplishment was even more remarkable considering she hypoextended her elbow in warm-ups.

"When I hurt my elbow I wasn't sure if I'd be able to compete," Rocchio said. "I never thought I would have a chance at winning the national championship, especially with my injury. Throughout the meet I was more worried about my elbow than my performance."

Sheila's coach, Catherine Rocchio '89, who was a three time team captain and the 1990 most valuable gymnast at the Institute, went out of her way to attempt to keep her sister and star gymnast focused.

"We tried not to let her look at her elbow. When Sheila wasn't competing she was lying down with her elbow in ice packs. When it was her turn in the rotation, she took off the ice and performed."

Sheila's arm from just below her bicep to her wrist could best be described as "technicolor." The injury, while painful, proved to be manageable, and relieved some of the pressure for Sheila. She performed so well that she not only had her best meet ever in the all-around, but she also was the only gymnast in the competition to qualify for the individual event finals in each of the four disciplines.

Sheila earned a 9.25 on each of her vaults, performing a front handspring one-and-a-half rotating front somersault. She followed that with an 8.65 on the uneven bars.

The next event was the balance beam. "Sheila worked really hard on the beam for the two weeks preceding the championships," Catherine said. "Last year at the championships she fell off and this season she has had a tough time throughout the year. She had a clean routine at the ECACs (Eastern College Athletic Conference championships), but was very cautious. Since then we worked on mental preparation and she had a great routine."

Sheila's routine was good for a 9.0 and kept her on a championship pace. The floor exercise was the last event and Rocchio finished with a flourish by scoring a 9.4 on it.

"I had no idea I had won until they called second place at the awards ceremony," Sheila reflected. "I knew I had my best meet ever, but I still thought I was third or fourth. When they called second place (Kari Livingston of the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse) all I could say was, `Oh, my God.' I hugged everyone in sight. I still couldn't believe it was true."

The Rocchios led MIT to a best-ever seventh-place team finish. Catherine feels that the support of her teammates was a major source of Sheila's success.

"It really helped Sheila that the whole team qualified for nationals," Catherine explained. "Last year there were only three (MIT) gymnasts who qualified. This year she knew she had the whole team behind her."

On the second day of competition and with a throbbing elbow, Sheila earned All-America recognition in three of the individual event finals at the 1995 championships to go along with her victory in the all-around. She placed second in the vault, third in floor exercise and fifth on beam. Her 13th place finish in the uneven bars was her only non-All-America finish.

Success is not new to Sheila. Her performance at last year's national championships earned her All-America recognition in the all-around (fifth place) and the uneven bars (sixth place). She currently holds MIT records in the all-around (36.3), floor exercise (9.5), vault (9.375) and balance beam (9.3). Sheila was the ECAC champion on the balance beam in 1994 and was a team co-most valuable player. She was able to accomplish these feats despite the loss of her mother in January after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Despite coming from Dover-Sherborn (MA) High School, which had no gymnastics team, Sheila is the third of the four Rocchio sisters to compete in gymnastics at MIT. Rosemary '90 was a three-year teammate of Catherine. A fourth sister, Eileen, is the black sheep of the family, having attended Brown University where she was an All-Ivy League gymnast and qualified for the USA National Team.

Sheila was salutatorian at Dover-Sherborn and is a management major at MIT. She is looking toward a career in law and/or government service following her graduation. Catherine holds a full- time job as a software engineer at Bolt Beranek & Newman in Cambridge in addition to her gymnastics duties at MIT.

"The reason I love coaching at MIT is because the athletes competing are doing so because they love the sport," Catherine says. "Last year, one of the gymnasts had to take an exam one hour before competing in the national championships. We faxed the professor her exam from the gym.

"The ability to make that kind of commitment, competing at an elite level both academically and athletically, is truly commendable."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 22, 1995.

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