Kirsten Peterman was 4 years old when her mother knew she had gymnastics in her future.
Peterman vaulted and flipped over couches to the chagrin of her mother, who worried she would hurt herself. But Karyn Peterman was certain her daughter belonged in the gym.
Kirsten Peterman, now a Maryland gymnastics freshman competing all-around, said with a chuckle that her mother signed her up for gymnastics to put her energy to good use. Peterman has channeled that vigor throughout her gymnastics career — which has included a stint on the Canadian national team — especially when it has been particularly trying.
"I've had a couple times in my life where things aren't going right, you don't really know what the point of it is anymore," Peterman said. "But then you have to go back to that little gymnast that you were at one point and realize that you wouldn't have stuck with it if you didn't like it. Working through the hard days makes you a stronger person."
‘A tough girl’
Peterman's exuberance often emboldened her to take risks in the gym others may not have taken. Her mother recalled a competition at the 2010 Canadian national championships when she broke her leg during her beam routine, yet later competed on vault. After the meet, she was mistakenly diagnosed with a sprained ankle.
"She got home and I said to her, 'Oh honey, just suck it up,'" Karyn Peterman said. "A few days after that we went to the hospital because she wasn't able to put a lot of pressure on it. We trusted that they knew what they were saying. We just thought it was a little sprain. She's a tough girl. She will definitely put it all out there."
Those close to Kirsten Peterman never questioned her competitive spirit; her passion for gymnastics shone through in every practice and competition.
However, when Peterman switched to Revolution Gymnastics in 2014 to compete under Aaron Brokenshire, she struggled at first, often butting heads with her new coach.
"There were some trust issues there," Brokenshire admitted. "She wasn't sure if she knew better than me on some things. That was a journey. We battled. She's a very strong personality and so am I."
Brokenshire remembered several times when he kicked Peterman out of the gym because the two couldn't agree on how to properly execute certain routines. Peterman would meet that with resistance, often refusing to leave until she had perfected the routine.
Following the 2014 Pan American Championships when Brokenshire said Peterman had a "disastrous competition," their relationship was on the verge of being irreparable.
Brokenshire and his wife Angela implored Peterman to do some soul-searching to figure out what went wrong. They were discouraged when she blamed others instead of herself.
"You're going to need to own this right now or you to need to find another coach," Brokenshire told Peterman. "That was really the turning point — when she couldn't cast any more blame on others and she had to hold herself accountable."
Soon after, Peterman began working with Kim Dawson, a sports psychologist. Dawson said Peterman needed to focus her energy in a positive direction.
"She, first of all, needed to develop the faith in herself that she could do it," Dawson said. "She was just someone who really enjoyed gymnastics. It's never been a burden for her."
Later that year, Peterman and the Canadian national team traveled to China for the World Gymnastics Championships. Peterman was slated to compete on only vault until a teammate landed awkwardly in her beam routine and tore her ACL.
Her mother, watching from home with a glass of wine in hand, was "scared to death."
Despite being inserted into the floor and bars lineup, Peterman remained composed.
"I wasn't really nervous because I didn't have time to be nervous," Peterman said. "Honestly, I didn't really have time to think anything. I just knew I needed to go up and have the best routine I could for the team because they needed me in that situation."
"Her will is so strong, if you can point it in the right direction, she's unstoppable," Brokenshire said. "She has to trust you and believe in you, and she has to know that you believe in her."
The summer before her freshman year of high school, Peterman and her family drove down to Maryland for a visit. Once she arrived, coach Brett Nelligan invited her to the program's camp, but Peterman declined because she didn't have any of her gear.
But as the family drove home before the camp started, Karyn Peterman decided to turn around. They stayed overnight in Pennsylvania, and after coordinating with one of Maryland's assistants, Kirsten Peterman borrowed some of the team's leotards and attended the sessions.
"It's one of those things where you can't say no," Karyn Peterman said. "This could be her future, and it had to work."
Kirsten Peterman committed soon after the camp, convinced she would mesh well with Nelligan's energetic style.
Four years later as her first season as a Terp draws to a close, Peterman believes she has benefited from his spirit, saying she's improved mentally and physically as a gymnast.
Competing at Maryland, Peterman said, has been a welcome change from the more individual-oriented club and national circuits.
"It's been a lot more fun," Peterman said. "The atmosphere is like nothing else. With your teammates behind you, it's a lot easier to go out there and have a good time."
All season, the Terps have relied on their "tribe" mentality to stay close. Peterman felt welcome from the first day of practice.
"It's not an easy road coming from high school or elite gymnastics to college because it's very different," Peterman said. "Having all of my teammates be so supportive has been great."
But she still maintains her Canadian ties.
She's kept in contact with the younger gymnasts from her home club, often texting them before meets for motivation. She sees in them the same youthful spirit she had shown when starting gymnastics.