Exceeding expectations is not an unusual occurrence in the life of Zach Peters.
The 15-year-old sophomore at Center Grove High School is a rising national-level gymnast, having just won his second consecutive Junior Olympic national championship for his age group in the vault competition.
When he won the event last year in Portland, Oregon, he kind of came out of nowhere. In May, he defended his title in Long Beach, California, again defying the odds as a Midwesterner in a sport dominated at the youth level by athletes from California and Texas.
Additionally, many of his fellow competitors train and compete practically full time as home-schooled students or at specialized sports academies.
But surprising with his accomplishments is nothing new for Zach. After all, he might have missed the national meet this year because of a back injury he suffered in January. He’s competing at a national level just six years after taking up gymnastics recreationally.
Going back even further, his mother recalls him overcoming a much more serious hurdle, when he was born with a heart defect.
“He was in Riley Hospital (for Children) for 10 days after he was born and then had his second surgery when he was just 2,” Kim Peters said. “The doctor said he would need to rest for a while, but he was out in the yard, I still remember this, running around the very next day.”
Kim Peters said the drive reflected by his precocious post-surgery jaunt is a big part of his success in the sport.
“He is just so driven,” she said. “When he told me he had this goal to go to nationals and win the vault, I kind of thought ‘OK. We’ll see.’
“But then he went and did it. It’s like when he sets a goal, he’s not going to let anything stop him.”
Kim said she and her husband, Jeff, have at times worked to temper that drive so it wouldn’t be detrimental to his overall development and personality, and their parenting work is evident upon listening to the thoughtful and soft-spoken Zach.
‘Keep getting better’
“I do have a goal to make the (junior) national team,” he said. “But I know it will be extremely tough. I just want to keep getting better and hopefully it will work out.”
Competitive gymnastics is organized on the basis of age group levels, ranging from Level 1 for the youngest competitors to Level 10 for 15- to 17-year-olds (followed by the Elite level for competitors in college and older). Zach’s two national championships were at Level 9, and he now graduates to Level 10 for the new season. While the Junior Olympics meet is the highest competition available for Levels 1-9, Level 10 includes an additional layer, with gymnasts who meet a certain qualifying standard being invited to a U.S. Gymnastics national event, and the eight finishers for the event at that age group achieve U.S. National Team status.
In the Junior Olympic national meet, competitors get one chance to score well in each event, and those who make the cut (the top 24 overall and the next 13 in each of six apparatuses), get one additional chance to perform again the following day for final placement. Zach finished 25th overall, missing the all-around finals by less than a point, but advancing to the finals held the next day in pommel horse, rings, floor exercise and vault.
He finished sixth nationally in floor and won the vault with the same maneuver he performed the previous year, a vault named “Kasumatsu Layed Out” after the Japanese gold medal-winning gymnast who created it.
“I was pretty excited, especially after being so disappointed the day before when I didn’t make the all-around,” Zach said.
He might not have made the meet at all if not for that intense drive.
At a January meet in Houston, Zach suffered a lower back injury. He could have been excused had it derailed his preparation for the state meet in March, the regional meet in April and the national meet in May.
Instead, Zach returned to the gym in relatively short order.
“I didn’t go to the gym for two weeks,” he said about the pace of his recovery. “After that I went and did mainly conditioning, to get my lower back into shape. I didn’t start doing all my stuff until a month and a half, but once I hit that I felt pretty good. It was still a setback, but I was really happy my back healed faster than I thought it would.”
The quick recovery and subsequent success is all the more remarkable considering the schedule of a competitive gymnast.
Zach practices five days a week, with his father driving him to Zionsville’s Interactive Academy, where he is coached by Gene Watson. He trains from 5:30 to 9 p.m. on every weekday but Wednesday, and then from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, with only a break for lunch.
Zach said he never feels like not training, even if his attitude toward practice isn’t always one of love.
“I think for every single gymnast that wants to do well, it’s a complete love-hate relationship,” he said. “We love the sport so much that we’re dedicated to keep going, but we hate all the practicing. But we know it’s making us better, and we love getting better.”
As he enters the top youth age division this season, Zach will need to learn 15 new skills overall in the various events. As he competes against the best in the country, he will begin to come under greater scrutiny from the college coaching community. His father explained that the recruiting process also happens in phases.
“College coaches really only watch level 10s,” Jeff Peters said. “They can’t talk to him as a sophomore, but they are there watching him. It’s the junior year when they really start paying attention.”
Scholarships are limited to just six per Division I program, and there are only 19 Division I men’s gymnastics programs remaining, following years of funding-related attrition caused by the NCAA’s interpretation of Title IX and the priority given to college football. Jeff Peters said his hope is for Zach to receive a partial athletic and partial academic scholarship, with Big Ten schools Illinois and Michigan being Zach’s two favorite choices at this point.
Finding balance in life
While Zach’s determination to succeed makes him a strong candidate to earn that college scholarship along with his other competitive goals, Kim Peters said his faith has been a big part of helping her son maintain balance and not letting ambition become a negative.
“We would have to tell him it’s OK to take a break,” she recalled. “I think his involvement in church has helped him find that balance. He enjoys the youth group on Wednesday nights. I know he trains a lot, but some kids seem like they are at the gym 24-7, and I think that can be pretty unhealthy.”
One example of his interest in ministry was a mission trip he recently participated in with some of his youth group from Mount Auburn United Methodist Church in Greenwood. The group traveled to Arizona to work with children and youth from a Native American reservation.
“He used to be afraid to speak in public, but he’s really taken a leap of faith with that and started to be a leader, even praying for the whole youth group at meetings,” Kim Peters said.
Zach said his faith makes a difference in his gymnastics as well.
“I am at the gym so much, but I realize that everything I do has a meaning,” he said. “It’s God who is giving me these opportunities.”
Zach said that as his body continues to mature, maintaining form is not so much of a problem as making sure his strength keeps the proper ratio with his weight.
“One main thing that people struggle with (as they get older) is working hard in the gym,” he said. “If you let your body growth surpass how strong you are, then you will fall behind.”
However, dating back to overcoming a heart defect to winning national championships to letting his faith inform his life’s actions, falling behind is not a part of who Zach Peters is.