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'Who is this kid from Indiana?'

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Center Grove area resident Zach Peters, 13, won last month's Level 9 vault event at the U.S. Junior Gymnastics Championships in Oregon. He is pictured with his coach, Gene Watson. Submitted photo.
Center Grove area resident Zach Peters, 13, won last month's Level 9 vault event at the U.S. Junior Gymnastics Championships in Oregon. He is pictured with his coach, Gene Watson. Submitted photo.

Zach Peters knew he nailed the vault, a challenging layout double flip with a twist that he had been putting together for three years.

The speed, height and execution were all there, with only the slightest hop on the landing. It was good, very good.

But was it good enough?

His coach thought so.

“I felt like it was going to be a winner,” said Gene Watson of Zionsville’s InterActive Academy. “He was well within being capable. I felt confident going in.”

But this was not just another meet.


It was the U.S. Junior Nationals Gymnastic Championships, drawing the best young gymnasts from around the nation, including the hotbeds of California and Texas. And Peters, a first-time qualifier, was a relative unknown on the scene, on the verge of pulling off the improbable.

“I competed in vault during the first rotation, so I had to wait for the whole meet to see if I made it,” said Peters, a 13-year-old incoming freshman at Center Grove High School.

One by one, though, the competition fell short of his mark of 13.3.

In the end, no one came close.

Zach Peters was the national champion in the Level 9 vault.

“I cannot even describe the feeling,” Peters said of his medal performance in Portland, Ore., last month. “It didn’t really hit me until a week later when I was back home.”

While Peters still searches for words in describing the feeling, his parents fill in the gap.

“It is one of those things where you are happy just to qualify for nationals,” his father, Jeff Peters, said. “I never thought he was going to nail that vault in his first year. I never expected him to do that. It was really cool.

“Now, there is the confidence that he can hang with the guys from Texas and California.”

Not bad for a boy who just started gymnastics five years ago as a way to fill time between football and soccer seasons.

A beginning tumbling class soon led to something bigger.

“One of the coaches pulled us aside and said, ‘you need to get him in a competitive program’,” a teacher at Wrights Gymnastic Academy told Jeff and wife Kim.

Before long, Peters had made his way to InterActive, which produced two former Junior National champions. What followed were years of a 22 hours a week training regimen, with homework and meals often in the car on the way to Zionsville.

For the young gymnast, the allure of the sport made the sacrifice worth it.

“It is so much fun,” said Peters, who also set Center Grove Middle School diving records this year. “I love competing. I love being in the moment. When you get a new skill, it feels awesome.”

That passion is necessary in the rugged sport, where perfection is a matter of repetition and endurance.

“The biggest thing is just perseverance” said Watson, who has seen talented athletes burn out from the demands. “To get to that level, you’ve got to be willing to do something over and over again when it is not very good until it gets good.”

A Level 9 champion at 13, Peters hopes to stick with the sport and earn a college scholarship to Michigan or Illinois.

No matter where that journey takes him, he already has made the memory of a lifetime.

“This was his event,” Watson said of the Portland performance. “He was keyed up for it. He wasn’t going to let it get away.”

For Peters’ father, the sacrifices made by his son are countered by what gymnastics has taught him.

“The bad part is that I wish he had more time to enjoy being a kid,” Jeff said, as he and Zach took a night off from the gym last week to watch sister Genna play at Center Grove Lassie League. “On the flip side, it has really helped him in school with time management and schoolwork.

“It has taught him that he has to be focused to succeed. That constant practice instills it.”

That dedication can lead to improbable results, as shown by Peters, who finished second in the event in the qualifying regional. His triumph in the vault at the nationals surprised many in the crowd.

“Who is this kid from Indiana who just came out here and won this thing?” Jeff Peters recalls hearing.

Now, they know. That is Zach Peters, Center Grove’s national champion.

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