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Malia Hargrove tries to become first Arizona GymCat to win a national title since 1996

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Gymnastics is a sport of tenths. A stuck landing, an upgraded skill and a couple of degrees in a split during a jump can make the difference between going home after regionals and competing for a national championship. For Arizona GymCat Malia Hargrove, becoming the first representative of the program to advance to the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships since 2016 was about all of those things.

It all started at Hargrove’s insistence. As a freshman, she was getting solid scores with a slightly easier opening tumbling pass on her floor routine. She thought she could do more, though.

During that first season, Hargrove’s opening pass on floor exercise ended with a double pike. That’s two saltos (or flips, in layman’s terms) performed in a piked position.

This season, she re-introduced a pass that she had competed in high school: a full-in, back-out. That has the same two saltos, but introduces a full twist in the first salto and a tuck in the second.

“It’s an E-level skill which is the highest degree of difficulty in gymnastics that you can do,” Arizona head coach John Court said. “So it’s worth more than what she did before, and it’s something that she worked on over the summer, and she was able to come in practice it and get consistent. And when we reached the point where we said okay this is really consistent, this is just as easy as doing the other thing for you, because she just has a really good amount of natural talent.”

The change was not made at the suggestion of her coaches, though.

“I came to John and I was like, ‘I want to do my E pass again, because I think I could score really well,’” Hargrove said. “I mean, why not? E pass, let’s bring it out!”

She had been scoring solidly with the easier pass, but the upgrade would help her and the team. She just needed to make sure she could land it consistently enough to make the math work.

“I had enough power to be able to get around and make it, but it was just making the landings solid so that I wouldn’t get that much deduction,” Hargrove said.

It made all the difference.

“Honestly, I think that if she did last year’s floor routine, we wouldn’t be sitting here on this podium right now in this conversation (about nationals),” Court said.

Going into the 2019-20 season, there were questions about where the GymCats would even get enough floor routines to be competitive in the Pac-12. Some gymnasts introduced new passes and another returned to floor exercise after not competing on the event in years.

Just a year later, Arizona is trying to get its first national champion on that or any event since 1996 when Heidi Hornbeek—the most decorated gymnast in program history—won floor exercise as a freshman. No GymCat has even advanced to nationals since Lexi Mills did it on balance beam in 2016.

Since the entire team did not advance, Hargrove and three other individual gymnasts will rotate with Alabama. They will perform in the Olympic order, which means starting on vault, proceeding to uneven parallel bars, then balance beam, and finally floor exercise.

“I’m honestly just looking forward to being able to be with such a team that that is so (highly) ranked,” Hargrove said. “And I can’t wait to just meet the girls and just see what their team is like and how they compete.”

Those lessons are things Hargrove can bring back. Since she is just a sophomore, knowing what it takes to get there and compete can only help in the future.

“I want her to have an incredible experience when she’s there,” Court said. “That’s the most important thing to me. But coming back from that, she’s a sophomore. This was sort of her first postseason. Postseason didn’t happen last year because of COVID. So her and our entire team made the most of their postseason, which was the Pac-12 championships and the NCAAs. We played in the second round, we improved our national ranking by 10 spots (to No. 27). So there’s a lot of momentum going into next season. This is certainly like the cherry on top for finishing off this season, but the experiences and the knowledge that she’ll bring back from Fort Worth to apply to next year’s team... bringing that experience and sharing that with her other teammates is going to be very important for next year.”

Being just a sophomore in her first postseason has some drawbacks, though. Hargrove will be the final competitor on the floor rotation, meaning that she will wait until the end of the competition for her only event. Being the very last gymnast to perform at nationals could be nerve-racking, but her coach does not want her to think about it that way.

“So it’s going to be 2500 spectators, all the teams, all the judges,” Court said. “So, the only athlete doing her thing, and I just say embrace it all. Go out there, you climbed the mountain, you’re up there. Go out there and do your stuff.”

How to watch

The 2021 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics National Championships will be held on April 16-17 and air on ESPN2 and ABC. Hargrove will compete on April 16 on ESPN2 in the second semifinal beginning at 3 p.m. MST.