From the floor mat to the big screen

Former U gymnast acts on her athletic abilities in the new film ‘Stick It’

Katie Wilber

University student Alicia Saari never thought her gymnastic talent would take her to Hollywood. After all, her best performances had always been on the balance beam, not the big screen.

But after a friend sent the former University gymnast an e-mail about auditions for the upcoming Disney movie “Stick It,” Saari sent in a tape of some gymnastics routines on a whim. And then promptly forgot about it.

“I never thought I’d end up in a movie,” Saari said. “It’s one of those fluke things that ended up being a part of my life.”

She got a phone call about two months later as she was leaving class at the University: Disney wanted to see her audition for the movie. She was so startled she dropped the phone in the middle of the busy street.

“I’d been out of gymnastics for six months,” she said, “so I had to hit the gym pretty hard to get ready for the audition.”

A few months later she was off to California, cast as a member of the gymnastic team rivaling the film’s main character, Missy Peregrym.

In the movie, 17-year-old Peregrym is ordered by a judge to return to an elite gymnastics academy after a run-in with the law. The return came after she’d walked out on a previous competition as a member of Team USA.

The abrupt exit lost her team a lot of points and earned her a lot of enemies – some of whom still are at the gym when she comes back and haven’t forgotten what happened. Once back, however, she shakes up the strict regimen and finds herself part of a team that’s again on the verge of a championship.

Saari started gymnastics when she was 5. She had lots of energy, and her mom thought gymnastics would be good for her because Saari already had gotten bored with dance. That apparently was a good choice, as Saari left the University as a two-time All-Big Ten honoree, 2004 All-Big Ten winner and four-year varsity letter winner.

When she moved to California she trained for five hours a day. Despite the tough workouts and the short hiatus, Saari found she had fun training again. She’d been a gymnast for 18 years and wasn’t ready to be done with it, and the movie was the perfect outlet.

“I was 22 years old and in the best gymnastics shape of my life,” she said.

At first Saari was considered as a body double for the lead actresses. It turned out she wasn’t as similar-looking to those young women as the production company had thought, but she kept training, and wondering what she’d do in the movie. She read the script and found the role of Lacey, so she e-mailed the director and asked if she could audition for the role.

She got it – but with the role came a risky and potentially dangerous stunt.

In “Stick It” Lacey does a flip on the balance beam but somehow falls, so she ends up straddling the beam before crashing into the mat. It’s the kind of fall that makes the audience cringe and look away. Gymnasts do fall, of course, but Saari had to do it on purpose.

“It looks worse than it actually was, and I was lucky that I only had to do it once,” she said. Afterward, one of the stunt coordinators came up to her and told her there wasn’t a single stunt actor in Hollywood who would do what she had just done.

The four-month process of training, rehearsing and filming is over and done with, and Saari considers it to have been an awesome experience.

“It’s been fun to be in a movie that portrays the gymnastics world,” Saari said.

“It’s not exactly realistic since the movie makes it a little more dramatic, but I hope this is something that can inspire younger gymnasts.”

She hasn’t seen the movie yet, but she’s excited. She’s seen the commercials that show her fall, and she’s seen the footage on the Web site.

But she’s not aiming to make a career out of her on-screen gymnastic skills.

“It probably won’t happen again,” Sarri said, “but it was definitely fun.”