Gymnast Kyla Ross has sights set on U.S. Olympic team

Kyla Ross likes homework.

The Aliso Niguel high school freshman is particularly fond of science and the intricacies of biology.

Ross likes the balance beam too, a piece of gymnastics equipment that she has also studied well. It is, at least on some days, Ross’s favorite apparatus.

That’s on the days when she isn’t totally engrossed in her floor exercise, danced and tumbled to music from Phantom of the Opera, or the uneven bars where every release move she does well earns a fist pump from her husband-wife coaches Howie Liang and Jenny Zhang at Costa Mesa’s Gym-Max Gymnastics.

Some days Ross even likes the vault the best, where strength takes the top spot over creativity.

Ross, a 15-year-old from Aliso Viejo, is in her first year of being age-eligible at the senior level of gymnastics and maybe only a month away from being a U.S. Olympian.

Last week she finished second to 2011 world team gold medalist Alexandra Raisman at the 2012 Secret U.S. Classic in Chicago.

In March, in her first senior-level international competition, the Pacific Rim championships, Ross won a gold medal on the balance beam, a silver on the uneven bars and a bronze in floor exercise.

Ross entered the senior level of gymnastics after having won consecutive junior U.S. championship all-around titles and is now given a strong chance to not only make the U.S. Olympic five-woman team but also to compete in all four events and be eligible for the all-around title.

“That’s not what our first goal is,” Zhang said. “Our first goal is to have the United States win the team gold medal.”

While the United States women have had plenty of individual Olympic success lately, including producing the 2004 all-around gold medalist (Carly Patterson) and the 2008 all-around gold and silver medalists (Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson), the team gold has eluded the Americans since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

“And 1996 was the year Kyla was born,” Zhang said.

Kyla’s father, Jason Ross, did not predict his daughter would become a gymnast. Jason is 6 feet 5 and played baseball and football at the University of Hawaii, where he met Kyla’s mother, Kiana. “Maybe she’d be a volleyball player like her sister,” Ross said. “Just because of the height thing.”

Jason played six years of minor league baseball after college, and he and Kiana eventually settled in Southern California because Kiana had family nearby. He’s a sales rep now and Kiana works a couple of jobs selling gymnastics clothing and working at the Westing at South Coast Plaza to help support her daughter’s athletic talent.

Kiana said Kyla was born with her father’s strength.

“We have pictures of her as a baby and a boy we baby-sat for was in his high chair and Kyla was climbing up, holding on and she couldn’t even walk yet,” Kiana said.

“She was always just built like that, with a strong body. And she was always high-energy. All she ever wanted to do was move around. When she was 3 years old and we were in Greenville, South Carolina, I put her in a recreational gymnastics class and the coach said, ‘She has odd strength for her age.’ She’s been doing gymnastics ever since.”

A typical day for Ross begins at 5:30 a.m. when she “crams in a little homework.” Unlike many Olympic-level gymnasts, Ross doesn’t want to be home-schooled so she heads to class at Aliso Niguel. One concession to her talent is to leave school early some days for training.

When the Rosses settled in California and first brought Kyla to Gym-Max, Liang described her build as “very square, like a box.” But Liang also told Ross’s mother, “She’s got the long lines of a ballerina. She’ll always have the power of the stocky gymnast but she’ll have the pretty lines too.”

Kiana Ross said, “I think that’s why Howie kind of took to her.”

Kyla said she is 5 feet 1. “And my legs got long in the last year,” she said. “I think I had a growth spurt.”

Liang and Zhang came to the United States from China in the early 1990s and their gymnastics pedigree was strong. Both had competed on Chinese national teams and Liang once coached Liang Chow, Shawn Johnson’s eventual coach. They recognize talent.

In Ross they have a talent. And Zhang said even if Ross doesn’t make the Olympic team she plans to stick around for four more years. “She’s the perfect age,” Zhang said. “She has another four years as long as she stays healthy.”

“I will,” Ross says. But that’s the future. For now Ross looks to 2012 and says, with authority, “I should be on the team. I hit my routines. They have good start values. I’m consistent. That’s what I bring. So they should bring me.”