Lia Horsley was always mindful she had a rapport with the hidden language of her body from the time she graced the floors of dance halls and gymnastics centres from a tender age of 5.

Horsley knew the disciplines weren't just the essence of who she is but also an artistic expression that could potentially open myriad doors of opportunities.

By the time the youngster from Hawke's Bay was 11 she had a calling of sorts to raise the bar at the Omni Gymnastics Centre in Napier and she grabbed it.

"I picked up the apparatus and I really enjoyed it," says Horsley, whose introduction began with the ball routine in the specialist art of rhythmic gymnastics.

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Not that the former Pukehoumoamoa School pupil from Crownthorpe needed any incentives but her coach, Annemarie Earwicker, of Napier, was there to reinforce the belief "because she thought it would be interesting".

That Horsley is the only rhythmic gymnast, in a contingent of 13 from Hawke's Bay, who will compete in the discipline at the New Zealand Gymnastics Championship in Tauranga early next month speaks volumes on the dedication and commitment required to take up the challenges.

"People are quite impressed with my flexibility and I think they are interested in it for their own perspective but they don't really want to do it," says the Year 12 pupil from Hastings Girls' High School when asked if her name appears on the honour's board along the road to the entrance to the school.

The 16-year-old, a former ballet and contemporary dancer, will be competing in her third consecutive nationals.

"One of the main things gymnastics has taught me is that I'm never giving it up because it takes time to get better," says Horsley, who was sold on it as a spectator with her family members at the nationals staged in Napier in 2013.

Rhythmic gymnastics can be an individual pursuit or in groups of five athletes who manipulate one or two pieces of equipment — rope, hoop, ball, clubs, ribbons and freehand (no apparatus).

It combines elements of ballet, gymnastics, dance and juggling.

A panel of judges declares a winner based on maximum points accrued for leaps, balances, pirouettes (pivots), apparatus handling and execution.

The choreography must cover the entire floor and contain a balance of jumps, leaps, pivots, balances (a certain number is required depending on the gymnast's level) and flexibility movements.

Each movement demands a degree of athletic skill that entails attributes of strength, power, flexibility, agility, dexterity, endurance and hand-eye co-ordination.

In October last year Horsley was third overall in level 6 competition at the nationals in Auckland. She had won the ball discipline and claimed third in the clubs.

She's graduated to level 7 at the nationals next month in a sport that offers competition to level 10.

While the ball is a user-friendly apparatus, a chuckling Horsley impresses it pays to religiously keep an eye on the leather and plastic club because when it is tossed quite high it succumbs to the pull of gravity with some determination.

"I've had lots of bruises [from the club]."

Horsley dislocated her knee this year and while she has recovered from it that has put her back by a few weeks.

Lia Horsley (foreground) warms up with other Omni Gymnastic Centre members from Napier for the the national championship in Tauranga next month. Photo/Paul Taylor
Lia Horsley (foreground) warms up with other Omni Gymnastic Centre members from Napier for the the national championship in Tauranga next month. Photo/Paul Taylor

No doubt gymnastics becomes an ideal escape clause and an ideal distraction from the daily demands of swotting for the teenager.

She choreographs her own routines, which are a minute and 30 seconds in duration on a liberal choice of music.

"It's like running for a minute and juggling the apparatus for the rest of the time."

What appeals to her about rhythmic gymnastics isn't just the dancing component but the flexibility and mental fortitude required to multi-task on the floor.

"We always have to be in time with the music but we also have to catch everything and have strength," she explains.

"Hand-eye co-ordination is very important and a lot of practice goes into making sure it's good."

Her training embraces endurance work with some road running, as well as frequenting gyms for strengthening. That means also investing extra hours at home.

"I've learned a lot about time management through rhythmics so it can be difficult to balance it with school work but somehow I have to manage it," she says.

Achieving on the national and, ultimately, international stage but I try to do it to the best ability I can."

Horsley says in some respects the Bay is isolated from the mainstream of gymnastics in the country and top level tutelage.

Consequently, like many fellow athletes, she's had to hit the highways to other venues around the country to up the tempo to gauge her worth or simply surf the internet to find videotaped footage in the hope of emulating routines.

While she's mulling over a career path — something in business or human rights takes her fancy now — Horsley harbours a desire to take rhythmic gymnastics to the higher echelons when she attends university.

HB TEAM

Thirteen athletes from the Omni Gymnastic Centre in Napier are representing the region at the New Zealand Gymnastics Championship in Tauranga from October 3-6:

4: MAG (men's artistic gymnastics) gymnasts in levels 4, 5 and 9.
3: WAG (women's artistic gymnastics) gymnasts in steps 5 and 6.
1: Rhythmic gymnast who is also the only Hawke's Bay representative at the nationals.
4: Trampoliners.
1: gymnast in tumbling.