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Mormons in Sports blog: Gymnast makes national team, and RM saves a life

Published: Saturday, Dec. 31 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Mark Asper, a returned missionary who grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is an offensive lineman for the Oregon Ducks football team. (University of Oregon Sports Information) Mark Asper, a returned missionary who grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is an offensive lineman for the Oregon Ducks football team. (University of Oregon Sports Information)

MyKayla Skinner is a 14-year-old gymnast and an LDS high school freshman from Arizona. She recently made the U.S. Gymnastics National Team and is competing for a spot in the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

A Nov. 29 article in the East Valley Tribune described how Skinner does her best to balance the life of a celebrity with that of a normal teenager while she attends Higley High School in Gilbert, Ariz.

Her secret weapon? Early-morning seminary.

“I get up and go to school (at 7:20 a.m.). I do four classes. Tuesday and Thursday I take seminary (religious classes through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints),” Skinner told reporter Michelle Reese. “Then I come home and get ready and go straight to gym,” where she stays for seven hours.

MyKayla Skinner is an LDS gymnast from Gilbert, Ariz. (Carlos Espinosa) MyKayla Skinner is an LDS gymnast from Gilbert, Ariz. (Carlos Espinosa)

“It’s such a blessing that I’m in seminary right before I go to the gym,” MyKayla said in an interview with the LDS Church News. “I used to feel so stressed about going to train. In seminary I feel the Spirit, which helps me feel peaceful. I’m much calmer now.”

Her mother, Kym Skinner, says MyKayla likes the idea of attending BYU in a few years. “The media has given her the idea of majoring in broadcast and sports commentary like Nastia Liukin,” Kym told Amber Singh of the Daily Universe. “We don’t know which college she will end up selecting yet, but BYU is still an option.”

RM saves a life

Oregon offensive tackle Mark Asper made headlines when he performed the Heimlich maneuver on a man who was choking on a piece of meat last week during the Beef Bowl.

Asper, a returned LDS missionary from Idaho Falls, said he was eating dinner with his teammates when a man at another table started choking, according to the Los Angeles Times. One of the restaurant’s chefs tried to dislodge the chunk of meat, but was not successful.

Asper stepped in and, after a test heave, a “full force heave” popped out the beef.

“He came up to me afterward and said, ‘Hey man, thanks a lot, but you broke my sunglasses,’” Asper told reporters. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll see if I can get you a new pair.’”

More RMs in college football

Since publishing two stories about returned LDS missionaries in college football in recent months (see part 1and part 2), more continue to pop up.

Gannon Conway, a 6-foot-4, 253-pound defensive end, saw action this year with the Arizona State Sun Devils. Conway served in the Dominican Republic.

Alex Parsons, a 5-foot-10, 194-pound tailback, served his mission in Capetown, South Africa, from 2006 to 2008. After transferring from BYU to the University of Georgia, he was a member of the scout team in 2010 and played in the spring game.

‘I’m a Mormon’ athletes

Several Latter-day Saint athletes are sharing their religious beliefs via the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Recent additions include Gabe Reid, a former BYU and NFL football player; Ian Harvey, a former Olympic skier; and Joy Monahan, a professional surfer and 2008 women’s longboard world champion.

A tale of two transfers

Quarterback Jake Heaps recently announced that he was transferring from BYU to Kansas. Bronco Mendenhall, now his old coach, said he is happy for Heaps.

I hope Heaps knows what he is doing. Transfers don’t come with guarantees.

Take Mitch Mustain, for example. Mustain was once the best high school football player in the country after leading Springdale High in Arkansas to a 14-0 season and a state championship. As a true freshman at Arkansas, his stats weren’t impressive, but the young Razorback was 8-0 in games he started in 2006. His potential was limitless.

In 2007, Mustain transferred to USC. Why? A soap opera.

Coach Houston Nutt’s decision to go with a run-oriented offense sparked the departure of several players and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Mustain’s former high school coach. The drama included nasty emails and spirited meetings between coaches and parents.

But Mustain never saw the field at USC. He sat out 2007 for the transfer. In 2008, he rode the bench behind Mark Sanchez. In 2009 and 2010, Matt Barkley was the starter. He had off-the-field problems, according to the L.A. Times. Mustain’s only start came in his second-to-last game against Notre Dame, which the Trojans lost, 20-16. After USC, he signed a 10-day contract with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL. Then he signed with the AFL’s Georgia Force. Now he works for a friend’s car dealership in Bentonville, Ark., according to USA Today.

Heaps could have taken a lesson from the personal playbook of New England quarterback Tom Brady, who didn’t transfer when things became competitive. In this 2008 ESPN.com article, Greg Garber said Brady was last on a list of seven quarterbacks at Michigan in 1995. In 1997, Brady lost a spirited competition with Brian Griese for the starting job and he seriously considered a transfer to Cal, back home. After a long talk with Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr, Brady decided to stay. His problems weren’t over. Before he was finished at Michigan, he had to fight and battle to conquer the legend of freshman Drew Henson.

What if Mustain had stayed at Arkansas? What if Brady had transferred to Cal? What if Heaps had stayed at BYU?

I hope Heaps knows what he’s doing.

What I find most fascinating about Brady’s decision to stay at Michigan are the lessons he gained in building character and embracing adversity. Those are two lessons Heaps might benefit from at some point in his life. As Helen Keller put it, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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