PEMBROKE — Children and teens clutched glittering gold medals on Wednesday at the Pembroke Boys and Girls Club as they fell head over heels for an aspiring Olympic gymnast with strong ties to their community.
Ashton Locklear, who is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, held the attention of almost 100 children between the ages of 7 and 17 for more than an hour as she talked about everything from nutrition to keeping a positive attitude to injuries.
The 18-year-old Lumberton native, who now lives in Hamlet, is used to performing routines on the uneven bars in front of thousands, but found speaking to the children nerve-wracking.
“I’ve never really done anything like this before, but it is another one of my dreams,” she said. “I want to be able to come to schools and places like this to talk to kids and help them realize that anything is possible and they can set goals and follow their dreams.”
Locklear is among 20 gymnasts competing for five spots on the U.S. gymnastics team and would become the first Lumbee to participate in the games. The team will travel to Rio, Brazil, for this year’s Olympics, which will be held from Aug. 5 to Aug. 21.
Locklear was the 2014 U.S. uneven bars champion and earned a spot on the 2014 national gymnastics team. In 2014, she won fourth place on the uneven bars during the World Championships in China while her team won gold overall. She also secured first place in 2014 at the Pan American Championships in Toronto, Canada.
On March 19, Locklear won first place on the uneven bars during the City of Jesolo Trophy competition in Italy. Her score of 15.25 broke the event’s record that was held by its all-around champion and Olympic gold medalist, Gabby Douglas.
Locklear told compared swinging, leaping and twisting between uneven bars to riding a roller coaster or flying.
Locklear, who has been involved in gymnastics since the age of 2, trains eight hours a day, six days a week at Everest Gymnastics in Huntersville. Between training sessions, Locklear pays special attention to her diet, completes online schooling and attends physical therapy for a shoulder injury she suffered last year.
“We’re just incredibly proud of her,” said her mother, Carrie Locklear, who attended the event with her husband, Terry. “We’ve been behind her since she started.”
Michael England, who came from the Hawkeye Boys and Girls Club in Red Springs, was starstruck.
“It’s an honor to meet her because it’s not often that someone from the Lumbee Tribe is recognized at a national level,” said England. “Especially someone as beautiful as her.”
During the question and-answer period, Locklear was asked what keeps her motivated.
“I’ve been dreaming of being an Olympian since I was 2 years old. My mom had a copy of the 1996 Olympics on tape. I watched it all the time and said, ‘I want to do that,’” she said. “But now that it’s coming into place and it’s not that far away, I just can’t believe it. If it were to actually happen, I don’t know what I’d do. There aren’t even words to describe how I’d feel if I became an Olympian.”
At the end of her visit, Locklear was presented with a Robeson County pin by county Commissioner Raymond Cummings and was gifted a handmade dream catcher with Eagle feathers, which represent the highest blessings among the Lumbee peoples.
Reach Gabrielle Isaac at 910-816-1989 and follow her on Twitter @news_gabbie.