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Arizona GymCats welcome new faces, new experiences as they host UCLA in home opener

Arizona GymCats in the Mary Roby Gymnastics Training Center in Tucson, Ariz.
Courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Maybe Arizona GymCats freshman Jessica Castles should have known her experience in NCAA gymnastics was not going to be a typical one. When she took her unofficial visit to Arizona, it wasn’t at all what gymnastics head coach John Court had described.

“The first time I came here, John promised me warm weather,” Castles said. “And it snowed that day.”

Just a few years later, she was sitting in McKale Center as a University of Arizona student-athlete answering questions about another snowy day in the Old Pueblo. Not to mention those questions about life as a student-athlete over 5,000 miles from home during a pandemic.

Fortunately for Castles, she has a lot of experience traveling. She’s the child of a British father and Swedish mother who grew up in Qatar and the United Kingdom. In gymnastics, she represents Sweden at the senior elite level. She became the Swedish national champion in 2018. A year later, she was winning the bronze medal on floor exercise at the European Games.

“I think everything is just so surreal,” she said. “It’s just like an insane atmosphere.”

But coming to the world of collegiate gymnastics was something that Castles had wanted to do for a while. Many of the gymnasts in her club choose the NCAA route. The opportunity to continue in gymnastics while getting an education was attractive to her, but she was also looking for something else.

“It’s obviously different, because coming from the elite world, everything’s really serious,” Castles said. “And there’s less of a team emphasis when you compete. Whereas here, everyone around me was just so supportive all the time, which was so nice to be around.”

Castles is one of a large group of underclassmen who will be expected to make major contributions to that team this season. In the GymCats’ opening meet at Utah, 21 of the 24 routines were performed by underclassmen. Eight of those were by freshmen, and a freshman at least tied for the team high in three of the four events.

Castles was one of those athletes. She led not only her team but tied Utah’s Maile O’Keefe with a 9.90 to win the balance beam.

Even routines performed by upperclassmen weren’t necessarily honed by time and experience. Senior Laura Leigh Horton appeared in just her third collegiate meet and vaulted for the first time in her college career.

Despite being short on experience, Horton also showed that she is ready to step in and fill the shoes of those who have graduated and moved on.

Court said that his first two athletes on each event need to be able to establish a high enough score to impress the judges and push them to give athletes later in the rotation a chance to get higher scores.

Horton fulfilled that job on vault despite her complete lack of experience with the event at the collegiate level. A solid 9.70 gave the GymCats a firm foundation. She followed it up by tying her career high of 9.80 on the floor exercise.

All of the athletes are performing while adapting to changes in their environment. One of those is the lack of audience in what is essentially an artistic endeavor. Then, they have to remember how to congratulate each other after each routine. Hugs and high-fives are out the window.

Then, there’s the biggie. Where should the athletes put their masks while performing?

Court came up with a very Wildcat way of dealing with that: a big foam Wildcat claw on a stick. The athletes hang their masks on that claw during their routines, then retrieve them when they are done.

“I think somebody was ready to get the claw a Twitter account,” Court joked. “We just wanted to do something different. Glittered it out a little bit. The bookstore was open that day, and I went got a claw for 7.99. Used my discount over there as an employee and put that thing on it, then the hooks in it. And that’s it. I believe the bookstore has different foam coverings. I could probably switch those out a couple more times during the year.”

Changes in rosters and floor protocols aren’t the only changes, though. Just before the season started, assistant coach David McCreary retired. Court said that McCreary had been discussing retiring after this season, but he believed that the pandemic hastened the decision.

In his place is former co-head coach of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Peter Jansson. Jansson and his wife Mary led the Flames until the program was cut by UIC after the 2019 season.

The Janssons regularly had their team in the postseason. Their final year as a program ended as the runners-up at the 2019 USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championship, a competition for institutions that offer fewer than 7.5 gymnastics scholarships.

“Usually you don’t find coaches like Peter just hanging around in December,” Court said. “I think he was spearfishing when we called. He certainly is adventurous. And he has 30 years of coaching experience, over 25 years of head coaching experience... He’s a very good technician. And it’s so important right now, that player development piece, not only for this year but also going into next season.”

The next step for the No. 15 GymCats is facing the No. 11 UCLA Bruins on Sunday, Jan. 31.

The Bruins are almost always close to the top of the national rankings, although they are a little lower than usual this year. It’s also typical that at least one Bruin floor routine gets a massive push on social media every year. This year, it’s Nia Dennis.

Arizona has already faced No. 4 Utah, which is the Pac-12’s top team so far this season. Court doesn’t want his team to be intimidated by the Pac-12 team that has the second-highest scoring average in the conference. After all, his team stands tied with Arizona State for third in that regard.

Although gymnastics is a unique sport in that the scores earned during a meet are more important to postseason hopes than win-loss records, he doesn’t want the GymCats to think the idea of winning is out of the question.

“Many things take care of themselves by the end of the night, and that does include winning,” Court said. “And I’m not going to make a call or prediction, but certainly, I do trust our athletes to give it their all that day. And they do enjoy representing this institution. And they’ll have their hearts into it. And they’re going to flip and twist and land and stick and support each other. And if they do that, whatever the end result is, I’ll deal with as a coach.”