By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The reaction, one suspects, was the same as most people who see either a picture of West Virginia University gymnast Hope Sloanhoffer or meet her for the first time in person — a quick double take, maybe even stumbling over the first few words of an introduction.
You are not expecting to see someone with Oriental features on someone named Hope Sloanhoffer, but she admits it does occur.
“It’s definitely a unique last name,” she notes. “My parents adopted me from Korea when I was four and a half months old.”
She is, in fact, one of four children in the family of Cordell Hoffer and Nancy Sloan. Her oldest brother is also adopted, the other brother and a sister are biological and they put their two names together to come up with Sloanhoffer for their children.
Hope, a natural-born Korean, was adopted and brought to Cornwall, N.Y., a lovely little village about 50 miles north of New York City along the Palisades Parkway, at four and a half months of age and has grown up to become an engagingly intelligent and gifted athlete who this weekend completes her WVU career at the NCAA Nationals in Birmingham, Ala.
She qualified for the nationals by becoming the Mountaineers’ first individual champion in Big 12 athletics, winning this year’s all-around title, which qualified her for the national event.
It is the culmination of a long trip.
“It’s been definitely bittersweet. I’ve been excited to represent the Mountaineers on the national stage, but definitely it’s been a little bitter knowing it will be my last competition. But I couldn’t ask for a better competition to go out on,” she said.
All of a sudden, her life has become something of a blur. She won the Big 12, now has the nationals, then graduates in May, although she says she won’t do cartwheels down the aisle to pick up her diploma, laughing when such a stunt was suggested to her.
No, she’s a lot more serious than that, as evidenced by the way she attacked the academic world. She has been Academic All-Big 12 and Academic All-American, and, after a year off to put her life after gymnastics in order, she plans to return to either medical school or to go after a degree in physical therapy.
But it all goes back to the beginnings, the formative days when her father, a private investment advisor, and mother, who works for the U.S. Department of the Interior, began sending the children down life’s path.
“My parents put all four of us into gymnastics when we were younger because they didn’t know what we would fall in love with – sports, academics or whatever,” she explained. “They figured if we wanted to do a sport later on, gymnastics would give us a good basis to do anything we wanted.
“I know my brothers tried a lot of different sports, but I decided to do gymnastics.”
It was not, even at an early age, a casual decision for Hope Sloanhoffer doesn’t approach things in a casual way.
In poker terms, she doesn’t bluff. She’s all in or out.
“I think I’m a perfectionist at heart,” she said. “Whether it’s gymnastics or school or whatever I do, I want to do it the best I can. Going through gymnastics, when it wasn’t perfect, I wanted to do it again. I wanted to do it until I could make it the best I could make it.”
She became a well-known high school and club gymnast, drawing a lot of attention, among them from West Virginia, where Jason Butts was an assistant to Linda Burdette and started recruiting her.
“I’ve known her for six years,” Butts said, now holding the title of head coach for three years since Burdette retired. “She was very highly recruited.”
And how did he sell her on WVU?
“I talked a lot about, you know, I like this program to be run as a family. We tell all of our recruits that this is a Mountaineer family and that she could be very successful in helping get this team to a higher level.”
He didn’t even play the Mary Lou Retton recruiting card, although Hope says she has met the Olympic idol from Fairmont.
“She’s super nice, a super sweet lady. It’s really cool to be close to where she is from,” she said.
Being a perfectionist, Hope works hard at her routines, which means there’s a long list of bumps and bruises along the way, none testing her more than a high school knee injury.
“The biggest thing was I hurt my knee when I was a sophomore in high school, but I waited until after my junior year to get it fixed because I wanted to keep competing,” she explained. “Coming back from that injury I took control of my coming back. My coaches helped me a lot, but I was the one pushing myself.
“I think that really reminded me of how much I love this sport and how much I really wanted it for me.”
That kind of dedication cost her a lot of the things other young girls were doing growing up, but she doesn’t mind that.
“Gymnastics made me grow up a lot faster than some other kids, but I don’t regret it. There were things I couldn’t go to while growing up, birthday parties and things like that, because I had to practice. But now here I am going to nationals, looking back it was all worth it. I think I’m more ready to go off into the real world because of it,” she said.
All that’s left now in her college career is the nationals.
“I’m not that nervous yet, maybe when we get there. I’m just excited. I’m paired up with Penn State, and I think that’s going to be a great matchup,” she said. “They will have a lot of fans there and get a lot of support.”
And she’ll have some special fans supporting her, too.
Her mother and father will drive 16 hours from New York for the meet.
“And they are only going to be there one night. That just speaks to their dedication to her,” Butts said.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.