This could be a tale from the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."
Once upon a time, there were five girls from Orange County who dreamed of making the Olympic Games as gymnasts. They trained together at the National Gymnastics Training Center in Aliso Viejo.
Their lifestyles were the same: attend school during the day and gymnastics training from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m., finish homework, then go to sleep.
By the time they reached high school, however, their goals had changed. Each quit gymnastics and turned to a different sport.
They became the cartwheeling girls of track and field.
Four compete for Santa Margarita High, one for Santa Ana Mater Dei. They're still driven to succeed, only in a different setting, and their friendships remain intact.
"They're practically my sisters," said freshman Caitlin Atkinson.
Atkinson is one of the fastest 100-meter sprinters in Orange County. Santa Margarita teammate Mandie Rowell is a senior pole vaulter with a scholarship to Utah. Freshman Jessie Lucier is a top junior varsity hurdler. Sophomore Lauren Collins was a Southern Section finalist in the high jump and hurdles last season. Mater Dei sophomore Ashleigh Gunderman is a hurdler and 100-meter runner.
None have an explanation why they all ended up at Catholic schools or became track athletes. All insist their personalities haven't changed over the years, even though several have known each other since kindergarten.
Jessie, who has a 4.7 grade-point average, provided a brief portrait of the cartwheeling girls:
"Lauren is the sweetest girl on the planet. She's nice to everybody. Caitlin is really outgoing and so much fun to be with. She's a speed demon. Mandie is a bit quieter. She's older and is in her cool stage but nice to everyone. Ashleigh is fun to be around.
"I'm quieter until you get to know me. I don't think I'm as talented as some of the kids and need to keep up with them, but I try to work my hardest."
They came together at the gymnastics club. Caitlin and Jessie met as 4-year-olds. Ashleigh joined at 5. Mandie arrived at 8, Lauren at 11.
Ashleigh was the last to quit the sport last year. "My heart wasn't in it anymore," she said.
The commitment and sacrifice required to become an elite gymnast became a burden for the girls, but they don't regret what they learned and don't wish to turn back the clock on their many days trying to perfect vaulting or master the uneven bars.
"It was cool that all of us decided to go out for track, and it shows how much gymnastics helped us," Mandie said.
Mandie, in particular, has used gymnastics to help her in pole vaulting. She has cleared 12 feet and taken advantage of her knowledge of tumbling and stretching exercises.
After 11 years of gymnastics competition, she gave up the sport when she reached high school. "I wanted to have a life," she said. "I wanted to have friends outside gymnastics. I was getting burned out and always getting injured."
Caitlin's mother, Tracey, said she has seen changes in the girls since they gave up gymnastics.
"They've become more independent," she said. "They are more free-spirited. They're maybe more stubborn on decisions. Gymnastics dictated their lifestyle. Now they have to make their own choices."
The parents let their daughters make the final decisions on gymnastics, but that didn't make the decisions any easier to take.
"I cried when Caitlin quit gymnastics," Tracey said. "She had been at the same gym for 8 1/2 years. It had been our other family. She was ready to retire, but I wasn't."
Through gymnastics, the girls learned discipline, time management and teamwork.
"It taught me to be dedicated to whatever I was going to do and not do it halfheartedly," Jessie said. "There's life beyond gymnastics. I love track. I love being outdoors, and it's more carefree, a lot more people."
Last Friday, at the Serra League track and field championships, the girls put on a show. Caitlin won the 100 meters. Lauren won the 100 hurdles and high jump. Ashleigh took third in the 100 hurdles. Mandie took third in the pole vault. Jessie won the junior varsity 300 hurdles and pole vault.
"It was exciting," Caitlin said. "It was like getting a 9.2 or 9.4 in gymnastics."
The girls no longer see each other every day. Three of them -- Caitlin, Lauren and Ashleigh -- have remained particularly close. All have stayed in touch.
"They're fun to hang out with," Caitlin said. "I can talk to them about anything -- relationships, school stuff, sports stuff."
They haven't pledged to do a cartwheel at each other's weddings, but they have shared an experience that helped shape their values and beliefs.
And if their track coaches get a little perturbed when they see one of them doing a cartwheel in the middle of a lane, maybe they'll understand that it's part of belonging to a special sisterhood.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at