No stranger to achievement in the world of gymnastics, 14-year-old Emporia native Braxton Higgins is looking to cap another successful year by representing his country overseas.
Now a freshman at Emporia High School, Higgins has been selected to attend the World Age Group Competition in Tokyo, Japan running from Dec. 5-8, representing Team USA in both trampoline and double mini events. The qualifying process was a lengthy — and expensive — one which included stops in Evansville, Indiana for the VIP Classic, Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the Elite Challenge and Des Moines, Iowa for the USA Gymnastics Championships.
“This is the biggest competition that anyone his age can be a part of,” said Josh Wright, Higgins’ longtime trainer and coach at Skywalkers Gymnastics. “It’s a huge accomplishment. Anyone can qualify, but we have someone right here from Emporia who has done all the right things, and now gets the chance to represent the United States in international competition. I just can’t see any bigger honor than being able to go to this competition.”
It goes without saying that becoming a seven-time National Championship gold medalist — and one that has placed in the top three in 17 out of 22 opportunities at such competitions since 2012 — involves quite a bit of practice. Nowadays, Higgins not only hones his routines at Skywalkers, but undergoes constant strength and conditioning training, running the track and steps at Welch Stadium, swimming laps, lifting weights and using specialized equipment at Genesis Health Clubs when his regular workout gym is too crowded.
Performing like a proverbial champion also involves plenty of sacrifice. Higgins is often unable to enjoy the relatively carefree schedule of others his age, and doesn’t share a normal school schedule with his peers. After attending EHS for half-days throughout the week, he devotes most of the rest of his time to his athletic pursuits.
“I go from school from 8 a.m. to around 12:30 or 1 o’clock usually,” Higgins said. “I get picked up to go train in Ottawa, or go to the track at ESU and finish with another workout at Genesis. I go home for a little bit, then come back [to Skywalkers] to train in the evening. It’s really kind of something you get used to after a while.”
In setting his sights toward Tokyo, Higgins already has past international experience to build on. He earned a spot on the U.S. Trampoline and Tumbling Team for the 2017 World Age Group Competition in Sofia, Bulgaria, placing in the top 10 in two of his three events. Competing at a high level in front of such a large and vocal crowd went a long way in building Higgins’ confidence. It also gave him methods of coping with pre-event anxiety, something he said he has improved on over the years.
“Before it’s my turn, I just try to visualize my routine in my head,” Higgins said. “I won’t even watch the person in front of me, usually. I just like to focus on myself and what I’m trying to do.”
Prepared both mentally and physically for the trip, one of the only remaining obstacles for Higgins is simply the cost. His family estimates they have already committed approximately $15,000 in combined travel, equipment, training and entry fees so far this year. An international trip could stand to almost double that amount. Still, both Higgins’ mother, Mandie, and father, Ryan, stand behind their son’s pursuits, having already experienced the generosity of those close to them as well as strangers from around the community in the past.
“Now as far as the financial aspect of this, I want to start by saying a phrase that I’ve always said, ‘We can’t afford this,’ and that’s the honest truth,” Ryan Higgins said. “We have never been able to afford this. We are believers and agree that this gift that Braxton possesses is a God-given talent. We have been shown over and over throughout the years by friends, family and our community that God does provide. Now, while we work our tails off and make sacrifices financially all year to make sure he gets where he needs to be, it has never worked out without outside support of family, friends, and the community of Emporia.
“I can tell you that by the time we get to this point of figuring out how we are going to get him to Worlds, we are mentally, physically and financially exhausted. Don’t misunderstand, we absolutely love that he is doing this, and he has learned so many life lessons that will prove to be so valuable to him in the future, I am positive. Those lessons of winning, failing, getting hurt and sacrifice will lead to him being a better adult and community member as he grows and matures.”
Those looking to support Higgins in his pursuit of the gold have several ways to give support before December. His family is accepting donations both online — at gofundme.com under the campaign name “Chasing Dreams-Road to Tokyo” — and physically at any Lyon County State Bank location through the Braxton Higgins fund.
Five-dollar wristbands supporting the trip can also purchased at several area locations: Skywalkers Gymnastics, 526 Albert St.; Genesis Health Club, 1007 Commercial St.; Karma Hair Boutique, 1119 Commercial St.; Professional Printing, 315 Constitution St.; the Lyon County Rural Water District, 2501 W. 18th Ave.; Haag Pharmacy, 1400 W. 12th Ave.; Salsa Street, 1120 Commercial St.; 12th Ave. Baptist Church, 2023 W. 12th Ave.; the Emporia Municipal Golf Course, 1133 S. KS-99; and Holiday Resort at 2700 W. 30th Ave.
“It’s been a fun — and sometimes scary — process to watch Braxton learn all these new skills over the years,” Mandie Higgins said. “It’s great to watch him succeed, too, because we know the amount of time and effort he puts into all this. Seeing him competing at these national and international events is really cool for us, but it also shows him that what he’s doing is worth it. He’s working hard towards something and getting a reward and a payoff for the sacrifice he has to make.
“So, we want to always support him in any way that we can and set him up to succeed. Even if he fails, we will not care one bit because we’ve seen what he’s put in to get to that point. That effort is really all that matters, and we couldn’t be more proud.”