Jennifer Ritchie remembers looking through her kitchen window and being amazed with her 8-year-old son Mac's ability to do back handsprings through the backyard.
"I thought, 'That's not normal,'" said Ritchie.
Mac had an overwhelming curiosity for gymnastics, so his reluctant mother solicited the opinion of some local instructors. They were impressed, and Mac soon abandoned his interests in sports like baseball and basketball in favor of gymnastics.
Nine years later, Mac Ritchie, a 2010 Concord High graduate, fulfilled a dream of competing for an NCAA Division I program when he received his appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is scheduled to report to Basic Cadet Training in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 24.
Never miss a local story.
Mac's first back handsprings evolved during a beach trip with a friend and his family. His first try was in the ocean's waist-high water, and he progressed until he was doing them unaided on land.
Upon his return home, Ritchie started flipping around in the backyard with unprecedented confidence, which prompted his mother to get him to a gym. His first formal workouts were recreational, but his coaches quickly promoted him to team competitions.
Ritchie won his first competition in Martinsville, Va., and finished eighth in his first state meet in 2002. He qualified for the Region VIII (Southeast U.S.) meet and placed fifth in the floor exercise.
As he advanced through levels every year, Ritchie won state championships every year from 2003 to 2005, when he finished 11th at regionals and qualified as an individual for his first national meet in Houston. The next year, Ritchie advanced to Level 10, the highest rank in the 14- to 15-year-old age group.
Injuries have slowed Ritchie during the last several years. A stress fracture in his wrist in 2006 kept him out of the bigger meets but he bounced back the following year to finish 31st nationally in the parallel bars out of about 250 athletes.
A stress fracture in his back prevented him from competing in the state meet in 2009, but USA Gymnastics permitted him to compete in regionals after Ritchie petitioned the sanctioning body. He says he's fully recovered from the back injury.
Ritchie changed gyms and coaches before his senior year. Competing for G&J Gymnastics this spring, Ritchie finished second at the state meet and fourth at regionals, good enough to place him on the regional team that competed at the national meet.
Named an academic all-American nine times by N.C. Gymnastics and a USA Gymnastics all-American all four years of high school, Ritchie in his junior year started to believe he could be a competitive gymnast in college. The first college to initiate contact was the Naval Academy.
Ritchie visited Annapolis last summer, and it piqued his interest in the military academies. But his visit to the Air Force Academy last fall was enough to change his mind about where he wanted to attend.
"I just like the atmosphere in Colorado and the military aspect," said Ritchie.
"I just think it's really pretty and I like the mountains. I also want to fly. I want to be a pilot or be in special operations."
Competing for the Air Force Academy will bring Ritchie full circle with his gymnastics career.
The Falcons coach is Kip Simons, who represented the U.S. at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In the stands that year were Jennifer Ritchie and her then 4-year-old son Mac.