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Originally published Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 8:14 PM

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SPU mom-daughter gymnastics team takes on nationals

Kai Tindall has been following her coaching mom to Seattle Pacific gymnastics meets since before she was born, but this weekend she's a competitor at nationals.

Special to The Seattle Times

Tagging along with mom when Seattle Pacific heads to a USA Gymnastics national meet each spring is a lifelong tradition for Kai Tindall and her mother, coach Laurel Tindall.

Kai was still in the womb, in fact, when the Falcons traveled to Massachusetts for the 1992 nationals. Even though she was nine months pregnant, Laurel was focused on her team.

So focused that, while watching a gymnast's routine on the bars, Laurel never saw a puddle of water near the base of the supports.

She slipped and — wham! — landed flat on her back. Gasps filled the room. "I was fine," Laurel says, and SPU went on to win its second national title under Tindall. Kai was born five days later.

At the 1997 national meet at Seattle Pacific's gym, the Falcons won another title while Kai watched on her birthday, toting a stuffed SPU bear.

"She didn't get a lot of attention that day," Laurel says.

Under Tindall, in her 36th year as SPU's coach, Seattle Pacific has missed only one national meet in the past 30 years, and during her lifetime Kai has joined mom at many of them. "It can be hard to get a baby-sitter for five days," says Laurel.

But when SPU takes part in the eight-team USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Championships beginning Friday in Colorado Springs, Colo., this mom-daughter road show will have a new twist. Kai is not along as a rug rat this time; she's a Falcon, a beam specialist who will be counted on to put up points for mom's team.

"It's exciting for us," Kai says, "but I'm just as excited to be there as part of the team. I just want to hit my routine and contribute with one of my best sets all year."

Kai is no sentimental add-on to SPU's roster. She rose to level 10 status while competing for her mom's club team (winning a state beam title at level 9) and has competed on beam at every SPU meet this season, posting a high of 9.7.

"Kai's had SPU gear for years and years, of course," Laurel says. "But to see her in her own SPU leotard, that's special."

"I think the first routine that she stuck really well was our first away meet at Air Force (a 9.625), and when she finished tears came to my eyes," she says. "I thought, 'Ah; finally.' She was able to put it together and really help the team. That's what it's about — the team."

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A shoulder injury during the summer after her junior year of high school (Mountlake Terrace) zapped Kai's hopes of attracting any interest from college recruiters. She considered UC Davis ("Too big," she says) but came to SPU determined to earn a role on the squad.

"I didn't want to get any preferential treatment," Kai says. "I wanted to work my butt off to get a space in the lineup.

"I think we're both really careful about not showing any kind of favoritism. I didn't expect to be a mainstay in the lineup, especially coming off injuries, but I've been really fortunate to really improve this year and stay in the lineup on my own accord."

Kai, 18, lives in an on-campus dorm and makes infrequent visits home. "She decided coming to SPU would be OK as long as she could get away from home and be a regular student," says Laurel, 57.

Laurel is a former U.S. national team member who competed in the 1972 Olympic Trials. After two seasons (1972-73) at Washington she transferred to SPU ("Too big," she says of UW) and was a member of Seattle Pacific's inaugural gymnastics team in 1974. She took over as coach in 1976, winning three national championships.

She says the gym served as Kai's day care ("She took naps on the mats") and fueled her interest in the sport.

"She was around the college kids a lot," Laurel says. "At 7 or 8 she would take in what they were doing, come home and dance through their whole floor routines. She would say, 'Mom, look at this; is this Allison's routine?' She's always been a good dancer. Imitating the bigger girls was always the thing to do."

"It was like having 20 big sisters," says Kai, whose older brother, Jory, is an aspiring jazz musician attending Northern Colorado.

Laurel has operated her Falcons Gymnastics Club for decades (37 are enrolled at the moment) and has coached her daughter since age 8. At the gym they keep things professional.

"We're coach and athlete in the gym," says Laurel. "She calls me Laurel. She never calls me mom in the gym and hasn't for years. People watching us in the gym probably wouldn't even think that she's my daughter. But when we leave here and she calls me or texts me, it's mom.

"It's never easy to coach your kid. We have the ability to work together really well, but we're also strong personalities. I think she inherited some of that from me. You're obviously going to clash sometimes, but I think she respects that I've been at it for a long time and I know what I'm talking about."

True, says Kai.

"She's not your buddy-buddy coach," she says, "but if she sees potential, she will really do whatever she can to get that potential out of you. She keeps high goals for everyone on the team."

Notes

• Five of eight teams at the USAG meet are Division I schools that offer a maximum of 7.5 scholarships in gymnastics. SPU, which offers between two and four scholarships, depending on fundraising efforts, is the No. 8 seed.

"We have a strong group of girls," Laurel Tindall says. "A lot of specialists and no superstars. We're going in there eighth, but we're better than our ranking indicates."

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