Three years ago, Elk River freshman Kaylee Jondahl electrified the state gymnastics meet audience with her unique skills.
Then she was gone. Jondahl returned to club gymnastics hoping to earn a college scholarship, but instead felt her love for the sport fade. Two years of intense, top-level training and competitions too far away for most of her family to attend weakened her spirit.
Rather than quit, Jondahl returned to Elk River's team as a senior this season. Once again thrilling crowds -- she is undefeated in Northwest Suburban Conference competitions -- Jondahl is pumped just to be happy.
"My family told me, 'We can see that you finally found where you're supposed to be because you're actually lit up out there while you're competing,'" Jondahl said. "They tell me I look like I'm enjoying everything again."
Jondahl entered this week ranked second on the metro area honor roll with an all-around score of 38.575 points. She set a personal best mark last week in all-around and on her weakest event, the balance beam (9.6). Her best scores this season on uneven bars (9.7), floor exercise (9.75) and vault (9.65) stack up well on the honor roll.
First-year Elks' coach Jackie Deiley, an alumnus of the program, noticed something different about Jondahl from the season's first practice.
"Day 1 she showed up and I thought, 'Wow, this kid is really talented,'" Deiley said. "It was exciting."
Though Jondahl is not a captain, Deiley said she leads by example.
"The girls were thrilled to have her back," Deiley said. "She's a huge asset. She brings a positive work ethic and the other follows suit."
Jondahl is one of the most colorful personalities on a team full of characters. Her sound effects include a crying baby, a firecracker and a horse, and she draws laughs with a repertoire of funny faces. And she will lead the team through "Gangnam Style" dance steps in warm-ups.
"I take no credit for where she is ability-wise," Deiley said. "But I think what she's been missing is the confidence piece. I don't know if she had ever really found that but she's starting to this year. I think that's what we've been able to give her this year -- to re-fall in love with the sport of gymnastics."
Jondahl arrived on the high school scene as a freshman wanting to compete alongside older sister Jena, then a senior at Elk River. The duo enjoyed success at the state meet. Jena, who now competes at Winona State, won balance beam and floor exercise. Kaylee placed second in floor exercise and vault and took fourth in all-around.
Right after the state meet, Kaylee joined Gleason's Gymnastic School in Maple Grove, improved her skills to Level 10 within a week and qualified to compete at the state and regional levels.
She remained at Gleason's as a sophomore and junior but got burned out with the club scene.
"I just didn't feel with gymnastics anymore," Jondahl said. "I wasn't ready to stop so I switched back over to high school. I needed a change again and wanted to be able to enjoy the sport again."
Jondahl, who has garnered interest from Division I and III schools, hopes to close her high school career with an even stronger state meet performance.
"It's very attainable for her," Deiley said. "She has the tools. Now it's just going to be about executing on the day of the meet."
Said Jondahl: "That is my goal -- to be a state champion. But I'll be happy out there no matter what."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574