CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alexa Johnson has come a long way from doing back flips off her living room couch.
The 15-year-old capped her gymnastics season in style, becoming the only Level 9 athlete from West Virginia to qualify for the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics Eastern National Championships this weekend.
"It means a lot,'' said Johnson. "I haven't been this far. It's a lot of exposure for me and I'm really excited. It took a lot of hard work, dedication, tears, sweat and blood. Countless hours training every day and night.''
About 400 of the nation's Level 9 gymnasts east of the Mississippi River will converge on Battle Creek, Mich., for competition beginning Saturday. The gymnasts will compete as a team for their regional age groups and individually for national titles. There are only two other levels above Level 9 - Level 10 and Elite, which is the level of Olympics gymnasts.
After a slow start to the competitive year, Johnson wasn't so sure her ticket would be punched to nationals. She just missed out last year on qualifying.
"I wasn't really strong at the beginning of the year,'' said the Ripley sophomore. "I really started to look toward that at the middle of the season when I started to improve. I won states this year so that really made me feel like I had a chance to make nationals.''
Johnson qualified a few weeks ago at regionals, where only the top six move on to nationals from a pool of about 400 gymnasts from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. She finished fifth in the all-around, fourth on balance beam and uneven bars and seventh on the floor exercise.
"She is very steady as she goes at a meet,'' said Susan Brown, Johnson's coach the past 10 years. "She's able to hit when it counts. At the regional meet she started on floor and that always means you finish on beam, and that's a mental event.
"You know you're a strong competitor when you can finish on beam and hit. She knew after the third event she was right in there and the pressure was on. She can get in a zone. I don't know if that can be taught. She has something inside her, the desire, the passion, the love for the sport. That, I can't teach her, and it just makes coaching her just a joy every day.''
Gymnastics has consumed Johnson's life since she was 2 years old.
"The story my mom tells me, I used to always do back flips off my couch,'' said Johnson, who's the daughter of former West Virginia University and Ripley High School kicker Mark Johnson.
"Mom was afraid I was going to break my neck so she said I might as well do it in a safe place with padding where I won't break my arm or leg.''
Since then, Johnson has broken four bones - an arm, wrist and two toes.