Riley Mahoney and Rachael Underwood, both Cary-Grove sophomores, are best friends and two of the top girls gymnasts in the state. They will lead the Prairie Ridge’s co-op team, the favorite to bring home the team title, to the gymnastics state meet at 5 p.m. today at Palatine.
But the dynamic of gymnastics is different than in most sports. Although Mahoney and Underwood are teammates, they also are competitors. And Mahoney and Underwood always compete in the same four events in meets.
So one moment you are rooting for your best friend, the next you are trying to beat her score.
“It’s an interesting concept,” Mahoney said. “[Rachael] is my little healthy competition, I guess you could say. She keeps me motivated. I look at her as a friend.”
Underwood admits sometimes it is difficult competing against Mahoney.
“It makes us work harder and we always end up doing about the same,” Underwood said. “It can be difficult sometimes, but it’s kind of fun. It’s like the best of both worlds because we go through everything together. We’re so close. It means a lot.”
Prairie Ridge, which has competitors from C-G, Crystal Lake Central and Prairie Ridge, has recorded the highest scores in the state this year (149.525 at the Fremd Sectional and 150 at the Lake Forest Invitational). The Wolves have Jada Berkland in the all-around with Mahoney and Underwood, and will have Maddie Solka, Dylann Perrone, Savanna Mensching, Danielle Dyra and Sarah Kramer competing at state.
Underwood was third in the all-around last year, while Mahoney was sixth. As best they can remember, they met when they were 3 at Crystal Lake Gymnastics Training Center, which is owned by Prairie Ridge coach Lee Battaglia.
They became really close around the time they were 7 when Mahoney’s parents, Pat and Tracy, bought a house on Bell Drive, a few houses away from Jeff and Patti Underwood. A year later, the Underwoods, with six children, needed more space and moved. Still, the girls are together most of the time at school, practice and meets.
“We get on each other’s cases sometimes,” Mahoney said. “We’re with each other four hours a day, so what do you expect? But most of the time we’re good friends and always there to motivate each other through the hard times.”
Battaglia believes having each other there helped Mahoney and Underwood become so good. They often take turns winning the top all-around honors at meets.
“Whenever you have two people like that it’s an inner rivalry,” he said. “They may not talk about it a lot. Inside of them, it’s a rivalry. They push each other subconsciously, they might bring it off that they are good friends, but they’re out there each and every meet trying to beat each other.”
If the Wolves can follow their plan and just hit their routines and limit any falls, they should bring home the first-place trophy to go with last year’s third-place finish. Their depth is critical, but so is having Mahoney and Underwood putting up such high scores.
“Riley has always worked very, very, very hard for me,” Battaglia said. “Rachael has always been an individual with a ton of talent. I compare them to two male gymnasts I coached, Bart Conner and Kurt Thomas. Bart was so talented and so good, and Kurt was just a real hard worker. They’re similar to them. That’s why they’ve stood out among everybody else to this point.”
Mahoney and Underwood will try to land their best routines, cheer one another on, and when the all-around is finished tonight, share a hug.
“I do what I’m doing and I always want the best for her because she’s going to help our team out,” Mahoney said, “and because she’s my best friend.”