South Charlotte

Fierce competitors but close as sisters

The three girls are best friends, no doubt, but they say they're even closer than that.

They call themselves sisters.

That's because Kailyn Hawkins, 17, and Haley Watts, 17, of Providence High School, and Sarah Persinger, 17, of East Gaston High School, often see one another more than they see their families.

For the past four years, the girls have spent at least four hours a day, six days a week together on the mat, the beam, the uneven bars and the vault at Southeastern Gymnastics, located down Providence Road in Weddington.

They're the only three seniors in the program, which is recognized as the best in the state and one of the best in the region.

Outside of the gym, they're constantly calling, texting and chatting on Facebook. They have sleepovers and plan triple dates.

These days, they've got a lot to talk about.

Last month, all three girls signed full college scholarships: Hawkins to University of Nebraska, Watts to UNC Chapel Hill and Persinger to University of Georgia.

"That's what they've wanted to do, and they've done it," said head coach Ludmilla Shobe, 45, who's been coaching since she was 14 years old. "It's so rewarding as a coach."

Last year, the three girls competed in nationals, which meant they were among seven gymnasts chosen from each age group to represent eight states of the southeastern region.

They're all three at Level 10 - the highest level of gymnastic competition, short of the "Elite" level, which focuses on international competitions and Olympic trials. Level 10s are prime candidates for scholarships.

A lot of families sacrifice a lot to get their kids here, Shobe said. "Injuries, surgeries, time from their husbands at dinner because they're driving back and forth (to the gym)."

The girls understand that dedication, which is part of the reason they're so close, they say.

"We can sympathize with each other and vent to each other, like 'I didn't get to bed until 2 o'clock last night,' " said Watts.

"Yeah, I get really annoyed when my friends complain, 'I only got six hours of sleep last night,' said Hawkins. "That's how much I get every night."

They've all three suffered injuries in recent years.

Hawkins has had three surgeries on her elbow, and Watts and Persinger both had a stress fracture in their foot last competition season.

But they kept on practicing and competing, knowing scholarships were on the line.

But it's not all hardships. For these girls, gymnastics also means closet-sharing.

"We don't just buy for ourselves," said Watts. "We bring bags of clothes to the gym and rotate them around."

"One of us will say, 'Oh, look I got new shoes!' and then the others will say, 'Oh when can I borrow them?' " said Hawkins.

Last spring, the three girls wanted to go to prom together, so Hawkins took Persinger and they went in a group with Watts and her date to Providence's prom. They all had nationals competition in Texas the day before.

"We were in competition mode, and then as soon as the competition was over, we were getting primped for prom," said Persinger, who wore curlers in her hair on the flight home.

"When we got in, we had an hour to get ready, so we were just throwing our clothes on," said Hawkins. "That was so fun. It was the greatest."

It's a different kind of friendship, not a surface-level, Facebook-type friendship, Shobe said.

"Twenty-four hours a week, you spend shoulder-to-shoulder. It's hard times, it's happy times."

Though in some competitions the total team score is paramount, Hawkins, Watts and Persinger are often competing against one another. They say people always ask them what that's like: Is there jealousy? Frustration?

The girls are quick to reply: No. At competition, they each receive scores in every event - uneven bars, vault, floor and beam - but each girl has her own strengths. Hawkins prefers floor and vault. Watts is partial to floor and beam. Persinger enjoys beam and bar the most. "I don't compare myself," said Hawkins. "If one of us beats another or wins, we all win."

"We're a team," said Persinger.

After practice last week, the girls tried on their new competition leotards, all red (the gym's color for the season) but each is unique. As seniors, they're allowed to design their own.

The three girls designed the rhinestone-laden leotards together, huddled around one laptop. Hawkins' has silver swirls down the side and sleeves. Watts' has one larger silver swirling pattern across her torso. And Persinger's leotard is half-red, half-white, with black and silver waves.

It's the first public sign that they'll be going their separate ways.

But they'd rather not talk about that.

"It's going to be really tough," said Hawkins.

"We're all so sad about leaving each other," said Persinger. "Sometimes we'll talk about it again, and we almost start crying. Our little dream is to get a place in L.A. after college, when we're done with the sport."

Because they earned scholarships to big state universities, for the next four years, they'll still compete against - and cheer for - one another.

And when practice is finished for the day, and they're nestled in their dorm rooms, they plan to chat on Skype every night.

They might even continue swapping clothes.

"I'm going to use UPS," said Persinger. "I'll call and say, 'Excuse me, I need a pair of jeans!' "

After practice last week, the trio spent a while laughing, reminiscing and talking about what freshman year will hold.

"It will be a great new experience, and I'll miss my family and friends," said Watts. "But these girls, they're still going to be my siblings."