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Arizona seniors say goodbye as GymCats finish 2nd at tri-meet

(L-R) Laura Leigh Horton, Sydney Freidin and Payton Bellows of the Arizona GymCats
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

It was not the college career Payton Bellows, Laura Leigh Horton or Sydney Freidin expected. The trio of Arizona GymCat seniors battled injuries throughout their college careers. Then came a senior year that none of them were prepared for.

Friedin medically retired before the season started while her two teammates had their senior years radically altered by the pandemic. On Saturday, all three were honored at the conclusion of Arizona’s tri-meet against Southern Utah and Air Force.

Once again, things did not go perfectly as the GymCats came in second with 196.00 points. Southern Utah claimed first place with 196.150 points, while Air Force came in third with 193.175.

Horton was able to go out on a personal high note. When it came time for the final rotation of the meet, the senior stepped up. She opened up the floor rotation for the GymCats by tying her career high with a 9.800.

It was a fitting regular-season ending to a career sidetracked by injury. Prior to this season, Horton had competed in only two meets, both of them during her junior year. She had never competed on anything but floor exercise.

After sitting out for over two years, Horton finally made her debut just over a year ago, competing on floor exercise at California on March 1, 2020. That day, she set the career high that she would match in the final regular-season meet of her career.

This season, the team needed someone to step into the vault lineup. Despite not having competed the event since she was in high school, Horton was there. She competed in the lead-off spot on vault in six of the team’s seven meets.

Like her teammate, Bellows has been forced to stand on the sidelines for considerable periods during her college career.

Bellows came in with enormous promise. As a freshman, she was anchoring the vault rotation on day one. She also competed on floor exercise beginning with the first meet of her freshman season.

When Arizona visited No. 3 Utah that year, Bellows scored a 9.95 on vault, setting her career high and tying for the win on the event that night. No GymCat had scored that high on vault in four years.

When the seventh meet rolled around on Feb. 17, 2018, Arizona had only two athletes compete on vault and three on floor. The team scored just 145.325 that day in a loss to Oregon State.

Bellows couldn’t help them. She had sustained an Achilles injury the previous week that would wipe out the rest of her freshman season. She would not return to competition until her junior year.

“That definitely hasn’t made these four years easy,” Bellows said. “But I think it has kind of built me into the person I am today with all the injuries I’ve had. I’ve had better times than others with competing...but I think that time management piece along with learning to just keep pushing through the injury and knowing that your hard work will pay off, in that sense, it’s taught me a lot.”

Now, she is moving on to help others push through their injuries. After completing her degree, Bellows will return to the Northeast. The Massachusetts native has been accepted to graduate school in New York where she will study to become a physical therapist.

“The end goal definitely is to bring gymnastics into it, but from a different light,” Bellows said. “At this point, instead of being the competitor, be the physical therapy side of it to help athletes stay healthy.”

Horton will take her skills into elementary education where she wants to pursue a career in special education. She is set to begin student teaching in Tucson.

“I came in wanting to do nursing,” Horton said. “I really wanted to do pediatric nursing but I found that I didn’t really want the medicine side. I just really wanted to work with the kids, so doing special ed and teaching kind of brings it together.”

Arizona head coach John Court is excited to see what the two will do in the world.

“When they do leave, I think it just makes everything full circle,” he said. “It’s never goodbye. It’s more like ‘I’ll see a later,’ that’s for sure, because even though sometimes alums do leave, they’re supposed to. I want you to go. I want you to get a job. I want you to go to grad school. You got to do one of two things with me, and that’s the way certainly that I’ve always been, and we’re...proud to put so many strong women out there in the world, because there’s no NBA or Major League thing after this. It stops.”

It does not stop quite yet, though. First, the GymCats have postseason aspirations. The team will travel to Utah to compete in the Pac-12 Championships next week. Court thinks the team is peaking at the right time.

“The last two weeks and they’ve hit their stride,” he said. “We’ve had two back-to-back 196 performances, two back-to-back no-fall performances, and that’s the first time all year that we’ve done that. So, it was great to see just the performance last week (against ASU) which was razor close and this one, as well. And they have really good confidence in their routines right now going into Pac-12s. They’re having a lot of fun out there and I think that makes all the difference in the world.”

If their competitive life is to extend beyond the Pac-12 Championships, Arizona needs to take care of business in the conference championships and hope others around the country falter. NCAA Regionals begin on April 1. Qualification is based on an average of a team’s two best home scores and two best away scores.

To qualify, teams must be ranked among the top 36 teams in the country. Going into Saturday’s meet, Arizona was tied for 37th.