Out of the Mountains, Into the Bluegrass

By Sara Reichbaum

LEXINGTON, Ky. - All she knew for 18 years was her small town of Parkersburg, W. Va. While others in in her high school graduating class were choosing between West Virginia University and WVU of Parkersburg, Heather Hite was looking everywhere else. Then one day the University of Kentucky came knocking and Hite answered.

At 4'11", Hite is the epitome of a gymnast; small, compact, athletic and graceful. When the Blue and White offered the West Virginian a full-ride to be the gymnast she had always wanted to become and a chance to explore the "unknown," she didn't think twice. And after three years as the smallest member of the Wildcat squad, she is now on top of her game and Kentucky serving as captain.


"Being captain is an amazing opportunity," said Hite. "For Mo [Mitchell] to even think of me as a captain with all of the leadership and responsibilities that it puts on me, is just amazing. It gets stressful and you feel like you don't get time for yourself. But then again, everyday I think what a great opportunity this is for me."


The work Hite has put into her gymnastics career began to pay off when she was accepted at Kentucky in 2005 on a full athletic scholarship. Having always wanted to explore outside the walls of West Virginia, attending a college 252 miles from home provided just the opportunity.


"My entire family is from West Virginia, everyone is from there, even all of my grandparents," she said. "No one left except my dad's mom who went to North Carolina, but not until she was in her forties. So they all grew up there, they all stayed there. I love to go back to see them, but I want to venture out and go different places and experience different cultures."


Although Lexington, Ky., is only a stone's throw away from Hite's native state, it was a big move for her.


"Even Kentucky is a little different to me," she said. "I love it here. It's a bigger city and I'm from a really small town. Going somewhere outside of home was a big thing when I was being recruited. I didn't want to go to any schools in West Virginia so it made me pursue other avenues. I'm one of the only people from my high school that went somewhere other than WVU or WVU of Parkersburg."


Hite started gymnastics at the young age of three and knew early on it would be her ticket away from what she had known her entire life. Hite's parents were willing to push her and do whatever it took for her to achieve her goals. At the top of her list was attending a Division I university and becoming a college athlete who earned a full scholarship.


"Some people would say my parents were pretty hard on me, but at the same time I told them at a very young age what my goal was," Hite explained. "They kept reminding me of my goals and that I needed to stay with it and think of the end results."


The opportunities presented by attending Kentucky seemed endless, a strong education, a successful gymnastics program and multiple chances to be exposed to diversity. Hite soaked up the abounding newness of life in Lexington.


In just her second year at UK, Hite wrote herself into Kentucky gymnastics history. She nailed a score of 9.95 on the balance beam at a quad meet in March and then hit another 9.95 on the floor exercise a week later. Hite was the first member of the Blue and White to record a 9.95 since 13-time All-American Jenny Hansen.


"I didn't quite know what I had accomplished until people told me," Hite recalled. "Jenny Hansen was an incredible gymnast. To do something that was comparable to a great gymnast like she was and that will go down in Kentucky history, was just amazing."


Hite's balance beam and floor exercise routines have become specialties of the West Virginian. Currently she holds 19 career titles, 11 on beam and eight on floor.


"I've always dreamed of being great on beam, I love doing balance beam, that's my passion," she said. "One day I want to coach beam. To accomplish something on that event was just a dream come true, but I still want to accomplish more. I want to get a 10.0 on that event. I think there's still more to come this year, but that was definitely a highlight of my gymnastics career."


Hite credits her success and her ability to lead a team to her tight-knit family. With an abundance of grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, there has never been a shortage of guidance and support.


"Family is huge for us," she said. "My mom has three brothers and two sisters, kind of like the Brady Bunch. My parents and family pushed me when I was young, and I think that as a leader on this team that is what we're doing. We're pushing each other to stay with the goal, and to not fall off the tracks and head in the wrong direction. Everyone needs a reminder sometimes that it's going to be hard, that it's going to be day-in-and-day-out work. But at the end of the day when we're competing at the top level that we can compete at, there's going to be no sadness in our bodies."


Kentucky has opened many doors for Hite, from the high level of competition in the gym to the relationships and networks created on UK's campus. Any adversity experienced from her transition from the mountains to the bluegrass has empowered Hite in the gym and how she leads the team. She has been able to handle situations with increased awareness of diversity and how to create a team that can work together towards mutual goals.


"No one questions my ability to lead this team and that's great," she said. "If you don't have that, you don't really have anything. I think that's one thing that will take our team to the next level. We need to have the mentality to get there, to be ready for those downfalls and those high points. You have to stay in the middle. You have to play that middle ground, and when you get to the top you can go all out. But, you have to make sure you don't get too high or too low because then you're just playing with fire. As far as my leadership goes, that's really what I'm trying to do this year."


The focus that Hite brings to the team through her leadership is invaluable. She works hard and is stead-fast in her training before, during and after meets. Right before a beam routine you can find Hite off to the side pacing back and forth, mumbling something under her breath.


"I'm always pacing over there," she said. "I never stop moving. I have cue words in my head like, arms together on a certain skill. So I go through all my cue words before-hand. While I'm on the balance beam, they sometimes play a song, and if I know it I'll sing it because it keeps my mind off things. If I do what I'm supposed to, it will come through the right way."


As she enters her fourth and final year at Kentucky, Hite has learned what it takes to be a leader on a team and in life. She tries to teach others and learn from the people around her how to find success.


"Have fun; remember that no matter what you always have your friends," she said. "Make sure you communicate to the people you care about because when it comes down to it, they're going to be the people that are there for you no matter what happens. The hardest times you could ever go through, they're still going to be there. But, if they don't know what's going on, then it's hard for them to help you."


No matter the distance Hite may travel away from home, she will always take the values and lessons instilled by her parents and family. You can take the girl out of West Virginia, but you can't take West Virginia out of the girl.