Jill Van Mierlo was already too old at 17.
The then-unsigned high school junior was older than most gymnasts who had already committed to colleges as freshmen. To make matters worse, she had severely sprained her ankle the prior year. But Van Mierlo wasn’t ready to finish with gymnastics yet, and at least one school was still interested.
She kept training with her club, and Brigham Young University signed her to begin in the 2015 season. Van Mierlo’s performances in the following year’s national competition reaffirmed BYU’s decision as she tied for seventh on vault, 15th on the floor and 16th on the uneven bars.
Now Van Mierlo is tearing it up in her freshman season with BYU gymnastics. She’s one of two gymnasts to compete in all four events of the meet: vault, floor, uneven bars and balance beam. So far she’s won first place once in the all-around competition at a home meet against Denver and Boise State and earned second place all-around in four other meets. She’s consistently improved throughout the season and earned high scores of 9.925 on the beam and 9.900 on the floor exercise.
The fact that Van Mierlo’s highest score came on the beam is a testament to her work ethic, because she said it’s the most difficult event and makes her the most nervous during a meet. BYU women’s gymnastics coach Brad Cattermole attested to this.
“She’s going to get better every single year, partly because she loves doing gymnastics and partly because she’s just really hard–working,” Cattermole said. “She doesn’t need a lot of care and feeding; you just point her in the right direction and let her go.”
Van Mierlo’s success isn’t due to recent efforts. She grew up in San Clemente, California, and has been competing since she was 7, but her parents introduced her to the sport at age 3. They met at the University of Michigan when they were both competing gymnasts, so she said it was only natural that she started gymnastics early. Despite the strong genetic influence, Van Mierlo said she never felt pressured to continue with gymnastics. It’s her love of the sport and her parents’ support that kept her going.
“My mom comes every weekend — I think she’s only missed one or two,” Van Mierlo said. “She’s always been by my side. She supports me no matter what, and she’s always up in the stands with her big BYU flag, waving it and cheering.”
Van Mierlo’s experience on the team is relatively unique, because she’s the only freshman who competes in the all-around. But she says she doesn’t earn any special treatment. She and the other freshmen still carry the equipment at away meets.
Junior Makenzie Johnson is the only other all-arounder, and Van Mierlo said they only make each other better. Cattermole agreed and explained that Johnson’s experience has helped Van Mierlo grow, especially in learning how to stay calm at meets and make necessary adjustments.
“She can get rattled a little bit, and that’s because she’s a freshman, and she’ll continue to improve,” Cattermole said. “But the thing that’s helped Jill is that Kenzie (Johnson) is unflappable.”
This kind of teamwork and mutual development is pivotal to BYU gymnastics. One of the team’s mottos for the season is “One Fun Family,” and it’s written in large letters across the whiteboard in the team’s practice gym. Fellow freshman teammate Brigette Ostrem explained that the team works to stick together and supports each other completely so it can be unified in competition.
Van Mierlo said the emphasis on the team was the biggest shift from club gymnastics to college.
“In club, you compete based on the individual and making it to nationals,” Van Mierlo said. “Coming to college, it’s all team … but it’s way more fun, because as your team does better you get more excited for yourself and for each other.”
Ostrem and Van Mierlo met just before the season started, as both made the transition from club to college. Ostrem said they relate well because they shared many of the same experiences as freshmen but also because they’ve both had major ankle injuries. Ostrem is currently recovering and explained how supportive Van Mierlo has been. Ostrem hasn’t been able to compete this season, but her injury doesn’t impede their strong team bonds.
Cattermole reaffirmed how important the team is and said it’s valuable to have Van Mierlo’s and Johnson’s talent in the all-around. He explained that even if they both earned perfect scores, the team would still lose massively if everyone else messed up. “Every kid’s got to hit it for us to be successful,” Cattermole said.
Van Mierlo is currently balancing her academic and athletic goals. She’s studying elementary education and working toward the ultimate goal of scoring a perfect 10 on an event. She wants to see her team make the NCAA national competition as well. Cattermole believes she could even become an All-American gymnast within the next few years because she has the talent and just needs to polish up her small mistakes.
Van Mierlo could do it. She’s not too old yet.