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The Arizona GymCats: Becoming a team in an individual sport

What does it take to move from the world of club gymnastics and succeed at college?

Jenny Leung celebrates with her fellow GymCats
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Most teams have a motto or slogan that is supposed to help develop unity. For the Arizona GymCats, coming up with the slogan was part of building that unity—something that isn’t a big part of a gymnast’s life before she comes to college.

On the north wall of the Mary Roby Gymnastics Training Center, the team members see that motto every time they look into the bank of mirrors that line the wall: “Honor the Legacy – Thrive Throughout the Challenge – Continue the Climb.”

“We came up with that as a team,” said freshman Alivia Kendrick, “and I think that once we all bought into that, it was like, ‘We’re going to do this.’”

That buy-in is something that everyone involved in college gymnastics needs to have.

“Compared to club, the team energy is just so much different, because everybody’s in on one goal, including the coaches,” Kendrick said. “Everyone’s kind of buying into this process that we came up with as a team.”

One after another, the GymCats spoke about how the biggest difference when they came to college was the sense of team, of being part of a group.

“When you’re doing stuff for the national team, it’s all very personal,” junior Courtney Cowles said. “It’s not really a team thing. I mean, you are competing for Team USA, but in the end, it’s still an individual sport. Whereas when you come to college, you just have such a big support system. And the girls around you genuinely want you to do your best. They’re not like, ‘Oh, if she falls, I’ll get her spot.’”

That’s not to say that there’s no sense of community in elite gymnastics. Cowles says she knows many of the gymnasts on other teams from national training camps and competitions.

“I was actually really close to (UCLA gymnast) Nia Dennis,” Cowles said. “Me, her and (Olympic and World champion) Simone Biles always roomed together at camps. We were like best friends and would always request to room together. I haven’t hung out with them since I was like 13 or 14, but it’s always really nice to see those girls, and see how far they’ve come, and see them doing big things.”

Still, developing friendships is not the same as being part of a team with shared goals. That change is just one of many differences gymnasts encounter when they move to college gymnastics.

Facing the crowds

One of those changes is experiencing the atmospheres in opposing gyms. Many of the sports perennial top-ten teams draw huge crowds.

When the GymCats visited then-No. 4 Utah on Feb. 1, the crowd at the Huntsman Center numbered 15,558. They performed in front of 10,323 at Pauley Pavilion two weeks later when they faced then-No. 3 UCLA.

“I think initially there is a bit of pressure just because there are so many people watching,” Cowles said about going into the bigger gyms. “But, at the end of the day, it just ends up being that there’s way more energy. It gives you a little bit more adrenaline and a little bit more hype, and it doesn’t end up being as scary as you think it’s going to be.”

In most cases, those crowds are relatively friendly—or at least neutral—to visiting teams. After all, in college gymnastics, teams are more concerned with getting scores that put them in position to advance to NCAA Regionals. In essence, they are competing with every team in the country, not just their opponents at a given meet.

But it’s still college sports, and rivalries don’t take vacations.

“Some schools will be excited for any good gymnastics,” Cowles said. “But there are definitely some schools who aren’t as nice. We’re not going into ASU this year, but last year when we were there, their crowd was so mean to us. It was rough.”

Expectations of perfection

Then, there’s a change in expectations. Junior all-arounder Maddi Leydin became the Australian All-Around champion in 2013 at the age of 15. Two years later, she represented her country in the 2015 World Championships. In 2016, she made the move to the U.S. to compete on the NCAA level.

“It was difficult at first,” Leydin said about the change from elite competition to NCAA. “I was used to doing really long routines with lots of big skills, but not very clean. Whereas here, you have to be perfect. It’s like shorter routines with less skills, but execution has to be basically perfect.”

Fighting through the injuries

Being on a team also means filling in where you’re needed.

Injuries happen in all sports, but they are especially widespread in gymnastics, causing damage to nearly every part of the body. A study done at Ohio State University called gymnastics the most dangerous sport for girls, with nearly 27,000 gymnasts ending up in U.S. hospitals every year.

That means long recuperation times, surgeries, medical retirements and performing through injuries and chronic pain.

Kendrick, for example, hasn’t even had the opportunity to fully enjoy her freshman season. She’s recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon that has kept her from traveling and performing with her team while she worked to recuperate and prepare for the competition level.

“I’m vaulting to a hard surface and I’m tumbling and doing beam,” Kendrick said. “So, I’m back. It’s just getting routines into college shape.”

Taking on new roles

Those who are performing are pushing themselves and taking on new roles.

When the GymCats were putting together their floor rotation this season, they were in desperate need of people to step up. They graduated Kennady Schneider and Madison Cindric after the 2018 season. Senior Lauryn Mattson medically retired before school started and now serves as a student assistant. Schneider and Mattson led the team with top scores of 9.925 on the event last year, and Cindric was the top all-arounder on the team.

Haylie Hendrickson and Cowles stepped in.

“We’ve been able to get more people on the floor,” Cowles said. “Everybody’s working really, really hard to maximize what they do in the gym and in training. It’s huge. Haylie came back on floor after how many years for her?”

Cowles had been forced to limit her events due to surgeries.

“I had three shoulder surgeries my junior and senior year of high school,” she said. “So, that kind of kept me off everything but beam my freshman year, because I could pull together a routine without my arms. I’m medically retired from bars, which is actually my best event. That’s kind of a bummer. I hurt my knee before season last year, which kept me off floor.”

Arizona head coach John Court says that the team needs to learn to engage with the crowd on the floor exercise, rather than just focusing on their teammates. Cowles knows how to do that.

“I just love floor so much,” Cowles said. “It was so exciting to me the first time I got to compete it in college. It was like my dream since I was little.”

Despite her time away from the event, she scored a career best 9.825 against UCLA. Two weeks later, she upped that to 9.85 in the quad meet at Texas Woman’s University.

Hendrickson’s journey back to the floor took a similar path through injuries. The senior has been fighting to return for her entire Arizona career, but that’s not the only reason she continues to introduce new skills during her final year.

“Every gymnast wants to perform all-around,” she said. “Some of us have had injuries that stops us from doing that, but we try to come back as far as we can. My last injury in my freshman year, I’ve been trying to come back to as many events as I can ever since. But it’s a never-ending process. Always trying to get better. Even if I wasn’t hurt, I’m still trying to improve from club (gymnastics). And that’s hard enough, because college is so focused on details.”

Getting their legs under them

In the past, the leg events—vault and floor exercise—have been the weaker events for the team. Not this year.

The willingness of gymnasts to step up, do new events and introduce new skills has made the floor exercise one of the GymCat’s strongest events this season.

The vault, though, is still a work in progress. On the sheet that lists the team’s goals for each meet, having at least five vaults that have a 9.95 or better start value is at the top. The team has yet to meet that goal this season, but they continue to work on it.

“That’s where we struggle a little bit with depth,” Cowles said. “But the people who are physically able to do it right now have really stepped up and tried to maximize their points.”

One of those who have stepped up on vault is Leydin. She introduced a Yurchenko 1.5 in the meet against Oregon State. After receiving a 9.85 that evening, she has gone on to score a career best 9.875.

“That was the first 10.0 vault that we’ve done all season,” Court said after the OSU meet. “She kind of learned that Yurchenko 1.5 and went 9.85. She hasn’t done that since she was probably a sophomore in high school competing on the international level, so it was nice to get that fire back.”

The willingness to stretch themselves for the sake of the team appears to be paying off. With only Pac-12 Championships between them and NCAA Regionals, the GymCats are No. 30 in the national qualifying scores. That puts them in good position to make the 36-team regional field after missing out last season.

Winding down

Now, it’s time for three members of the program to step aside and let others continue the climb, as their team motto incites them to do. Hendrickson and Spencer performed their final routines at McKale Center on Mar. 15. Mattson wound up her time as an assistant, as well.

The three young women have persevered through difficult circumstances. They came to Tucson in 2016, when former coach Tabitha Yim was leading the program. Just before the 2017-18 school year started, she left to become head coach at her alma mater.

A year of uncertainty with Court as the interim head coach ended with Arizona missing regionals after being a mainstay in the postseason for 32 years. At the end of the year, he earned the full-time gig.

Now, they fight to go out on a high note—with a return to the NCAAs in their senior campaign. Along with their teammates, they strive to become part of the legacy of Arizona Gymnastics.

The next step in that challenge is the Pac-12 Championships. The GymCats will travel to the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah on Saturday. If they are one of the top 36 teams in the nation after that, their one-year NCAA drought will be over.