KIRKLAND – When Juanita High School revived its dormant gymnastics program last season, first-time head coach Annie Smith arrived at her team’s initial practice knowing little about the 10 girls who had signed up for her debut roster.
Yet Smith had heard some chatter about a girl named Millie: small (around 4 feet 11), knowledgeable (she started in club gymnastics in first grade) and talented (she won a statewide Level 4 [out of 10] competition as a preteen).
One other thing: Millie has no left hand.
“You hear that, and at first you think there has got to be some sort of limitations for this girl,” Smith recalled. “But really, with her I learned the only limitation is competing on bars, which is pretty hard with just one hand. Everything else? Not a problem.
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“Millie has never used it as an excuse for anything.”
Millie is Amelia Andrilenas, a 17-year-old junior and the top scorer on what is now a 27-gymnast team.
Despite missing one hand, Andrilenas was an individual qualifier for last year’s 3A/2A state meet in two events: floor and vault. In meets this season she has placed first, second and fourth in all-around. On Thursday at Mount Si, she posted a career high on floor, 9.3.
“She’s my best gymnast,” said Smith, a former gymnast who is not a part of Juanita’s faculty. “She’s consistent, and her power level is amazing. People think, ‘Wow, that came out of that girl?’
“She’s got excellent technique. She’s a club-trained gymnast. She’s got the background of any competitive gymnast. The only difference is the length of her left arm.”
Born in China with a congenital malformation of her left hand, Andrilenas has only a minimally developed bump of a hand beyond her left wrist bone. Fingers? “I have little buds,” she explained. “They just didn’t grow out.”
None of this seems to affect her, in or out of the gym. “I kind of just do everything normally,” Andrilenas said. “I’m fine fixing my hair. There are some things I need help with, like opening a package. But usually I can handle most things.”
Enrolled in an advanced placement program at Juanita (she dreams of attending USC, with occupational therapy as a possible major), she also plays for the school’s soccer team. But gymnastics is her favorite.
“When I started I just fell in love with it,” she said. “I guess I could be myself here. It felt natural.”
She was adopted at 16 months old by Jim and Minah Andrilenas and took up gymnastics at Northwest Aerials gym in Kirkland, where Juanita practices. Her gymnastics training was interrupted by her parents’ Christian missionary work, first by a lengthy stay in Vietnam, then a three-year stint from seventh through ninth grades in Ethiopia.
“When we came back, we were really excited Juanita had started gymnastics again,” said Jim Andrilenas. “It offered her a level of competition where she could fit in quickly.”
Millie feels comfortable with her teammates, and at practices her missing hand isn’t an issue.
“I don’t have to think, ‘OK, I’m going to have the rest of the team do this and have Millie do this,’ ” Smith said. “They all do everything. Millie jumps right in.”
Andrilenas routinely scores in the mid-8’s on vault with a handspring full — sprinting to the vault, extending her arms, thrusting herself into the air and performing a full-body twist before, ideally, landing on her feet.
“She’s amazingly powerful,” Smith said. “She’s the shortest gymnast on the team, yet I have to raise the vault to the highest setting, and her springboard is back three feet or more from the vault. That’s probably the farthest distance for a lot of gymnasts in the entire league.”
Andrilenas gets her left arm taped from the forearm down to protect her truncated limb. When whirling on uneven bars, she hooks her left elbow on the lower bar to cast herself to the high bar. “She can do so much,” Smith said.
That, Andrilenas acknowledges, is her story. “It doesn’t matter if you have any ‘issues,’ ” she said. “If you really want to do something, if you want it with your whole life, you can do it.
“If people are there to help you, it’s really nice. But if you really want it, you could do it by yourself.”