Brittany and Kirsten Petzold still remember the first big decision they ever had to make.
“I remember I cried so much,” Brittany said.
More than a decade ago, the girls faced a choice, and the outcome each one chose ultimately impacted where they are today in their lives.
At three years old, Brittany began taking gymnastics classes.
“Brittany was bouncing off the walls at home and doing flips off the couch,” their mother, Sheri Petzold, said. “We would pick her up, and she would do flips off our arms, and finally I said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ So we took her to the gym, and she loved it.”
Brittany’s admiring younger sister followed as soon as she was able, starting gymnastics at one-and-a-half years old in a mom-and-tot class.
The sisters did everything together and also began taking dance classes, but going from one practice to the other became too much.
That’s when their mother told them they each had to pick just one activity.
Gymnastics was the winner for them both, and they haven’t looked back since.
Each of the Shelby Township natives has racked up numerous accomplishments throughout their gymnastics careers, and after spending two years apart when Brittany went to college to compete on the Central Michigan gymnastics team, the two were reunited this year when Kirsten also joined the squad.
“With (Brittany) being here, I knew this team a lot more,” Kirsten said. “I knew the coaches a lot more and everything (with the program). It really influenced me to come here.”
Head coach Jerry Reighard has coached sisters before and said it can be a very dangerous thing.
The coaches were very careful in clearing Kirsten to come to CMU with her sister, and they asked Brittany several times if it was a good thing for the two to compete together.
“We knew Kiki had a lot of talent,” Reighard said. “She’s really good on three events, not as good as her sister on one event, and she’s a little better than her sister on another. It’s been nothing but really positive in the gym, and I think it will continue that way. They just want each other to do well.”
Kirsten and Brittany agreed that sibling rivalry has never been an issue for either of them.
The sisters have been teammates their whole lives and focus on cheering and building each other up, not tearing the other one down.
“We push each other to be the best,” Brittany said. “It doesn’t matter if she’s competing in everything and I’m not competing at all, or I’m competing and she’s not at all. We just want the best for each other.”
Knowing how to make the other one better is sometimes a job specifically for a sister.
The girls connect on a different level; they have a history separate from anyone else on the team.
“Sometimes our teammates don’t really understand us as much,” Brittany said. “They won’t know what she needs, and I can help push her differently than they do, so she understands what to do more.”
Although Brittany is a captain on the team, she said she treats her sister like any other freshman.
At times, she said, other captains will focus on working with Kirsten so negative comments don’t seem like a personal attack.
For the most part, the two maintain that they have a great relationship as teammates and sisters, but they acknowledge they don’t always see eye-to-eye.
“We argue, but it’s stupid stuff,” Kirsten said. “I’ll get annoyed if she keeps telling me something and I can’t make the correction, then I’ll just walk away.”
“But that happens with everyone,” Brittany added.
Outside the gym, Kirsten and Brittany do homework together, watch movies and go shopping.
Her big sister has helped Kirsten adjust to college, being a support system and resource. Brittany taught Kirsten how to study and handle college schoolwork compared to high school.
In the gym, Brittany tells Kirsten to be calm and relaxed for competition and not to get upset by the coaches’ criticism.
“In August, we had a conditioning test, and a lot of the freshmen and underclassmen had a hard time with it and they would cry because it’s really tough,” Brittany said. “I told her it would get a lot better.”
“Yeah, and I didn’t believe that,” Kirsten said, laughing.
Success, goals and what comes next
But, it did get better, and Kirsten is settling into her role on the team, though that can be difficult with an older sister who has set the standard quite high.
Her freshman year, Brittany won bars at the Mid-American Conference Championships. The next year, she claimed the all-around title at the MAC Championships and was named First-Team-All-MAC.
“I feel like it pushes me, because I have to live up to what she did her freshman year,” Kirsten said. “I try to remember that I’m my own person, and I have to do what I can do, not what she did.”
While Kirsten might not be comparing herself to her sister, both of the Petzolds have set high individual goals for the season.
Kirsten hopes to receive MAC Freshman of the Year honors and also win vaults at the MAC Championships.
Brittany wants to be named MAC Gymnast of the Year and also win the all-around title again.
But, before she has a shot at the all-around title, Brittany must get back to competing all-around.
At the end of last May, Brittany had shoulder surgery. In this season’s first two meets, she has only competed on vault and floor as she continues to get stronger.
Kirsten might look up to her big sister’s accomplishments, but Brittany also looks to her sister for inspiration and hope when looking to the future.
“She had surgery on her elbow before,” Brittany said. “Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have surgery so I could be doing all-around, but my trainer said, without the surgery, I would never do bars again. So, I look at Kirsten and, if she could do it, I could do it. I can come back.”
There are things both Brittany and Kirsten have known since they first began running around in leotards and have built upon throughout their lives.
When they went through Talent Opportunity Program testing for gymnastics, both realized a blue ribbon is much better than red.
As Brittany went to college and Kirsten competed on her club team, they learned the importance of having a supportive team.
And their entire lives, they’ve always known life is better when they’re standing side-by-side.
“I love being teammates,” Brittany said. “I feel like it’s brought us a lot closer than most siblings would be in other sports.”
“She’s my best friend,” Kirsten said. “I go to her for everything.”