Hayes, Jackson Lead Air Force Into MPSF Championships
March 22, 2002
By KURT EILMES
James Hayes wanted to take karate lessons. His father, a former member of the West Point gymnastics team, told him he had to take gymnastics lessons first. Hayes did and realized how talented he was in the sport.
In 1998, he won the National High School all-around title.
At the age of 10 or 11, Aaron Jackson followed his older brother into gymnastics. When he noticed muscles he "never knew existed pop out" he was stuck on gymnastics. The fact that females also participated didn't hurt Jackson's interest either. In 1999, he won the National High School all-around title.
Hayes and Jackson both had their own reasons for taking up gymnastics. No matter what those reasons where, the Air Force Academy men's gymnastic program is glad to have both former high school champions as part of the team.
Especially since the Academy's West Gymnasium is the location of this season's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation gymnastics championships. The competition, which begins Friday night, will bring such national gymnastic powerhouses as Oklahoma, Nebraska and California-Berkley into town.
While winner the conference title - which results in an automatic NCAA berth - is a long shot, Air Force coach Lou Burkel said Hayes and Jackson are the Falcons' best individual shots to represent the Academy at the national collegiate competition.
"James and Aaron have excellent chances to qualify in the all-around," he said, "if they perform up to their expectations. They're both very deserving, and this will be a good opportunity for them."
That opportunity to represent Air Force at the NCAA meet, something each has done twice previously, is what motivates this duo.
"That's both of our goals, to qualify for the NCAA's in the all-around," Hayes said. "Anything can happen (team-wise) but our main goal is to get our highest score of the season." Burkel is hoping for season-best routines from his squad.
"It's always a big advantage to host the meet," he said. "The familiar surroundings help the guys do a little bit better."
Hayes and Jackson took different paths to the Academy. Hayes, a senior, was competed at the club level and participated in prep gymnastics for the first time his senior year because his school did not offer the sport until his junior year. A training injury prevented him from joining the team that year, but he hit the pinnacle of the high school level as a senior - in his one and only season.
Coming to Air Force was a no-brainer for Hayes, who wanted to attend one of the academies and fly.
Jackson, a junior, grew up in Texas, which he said has a thriving club gymnastics scene. However, he stopped competing with his club team once he started high school. "My freshman year in high school, I dropped doing club to focus more on high school," Jackson said. "It was more laid back and not as intense."
His choice paid off his senior year, when he won the national all-around title the year after Hayes.
Despite competing against a powerful No. 1 ranked Oklahoma, a school that heavily recruited him, Jackson has no regrets.
"After going to both campuses, there was not any competition in my mind," he said. "I wanted to go to a school where I wasn't always wasting my time and this by far was the best choice to fulfill that."
And the muscles don't hurt either.