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Arizona GymCat Sirena Linton went from begging for a walk-on opportunity to competing for a national title

Arizona v UCLA Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

Sirena Linton's gymnastics career has had its ups and downs. The junior balance beam specialist followed her sister into the sport as soon as she was able and she fell in love.

“I actually watched my half-sister go into the gym a lot, and I would watch her just practice and I really wanted to join,” Linton said. “And I always told my mom, ‘When is it my turn?’ I was like, ‘When am I going to go in and have my time to go flip on the mat?’”

Her time came before she was in elementary school and has taken her to the height of her sport. The early passion of a three-year-old has led Linton to qualify for the 2022 NCAA National Championships on the balance beam, but it wasn’t easy to get there.

Linton was once on the elite gymnastics track. That doesn’t just mean she was good. Elite gymnasts are those who compete for the opportunity to represent the U.S. in international competitions like the world championships and the Olympics. That was her goal, but things got difficult for Linton along the way.

“When I was like a sophomore going into junior year, I suffered from a knee injury and I actually had to get two major knee surgeries,” Linton said, pointing at a scar on her left knee. “And working through that, I honestly didn’t even know if I would be able to come back into the sport. So for me it was more, when I hurt myself, I need to focus on school. I need to focus on what’s going to get me to college because at this point gymnastics isn’t going to be it.”

Linton focused on the classroom during her 18 months away from the sport. She earned an academic scholarship to UA. It was an important achievement.

“So I’m actually the only one in my family who...has ever done college athletics,” Linton said. “It’s really cool to be not only the first one in my family here, but also just the first one in college period because I’m a first generation student. So I feel like everything has been really cool to kind of do it for not only me, but for my family.”

The passion for the sport hadn’t completely gone away despite her focus on academics. Linton still wanted to see what she could do as a college athlete.

Mackenzie Barile, Linton’s former club teammate from Desert Lights Gymnastics, was already committed to the GymCats. So, Linton set her sights on convincing Arizona head coach John Court that she could help his team and she didn’t even need an athletic scholarship to do it.

“I think once I just found my passion in the sport, I didn’t want to let it go,” Linton said.

Court needed to know that she could help his team whether it cost him an athletic scholarship or not. It wasn’t easy to prove that she was even still able to perform at the level of college gymnastics.

“She’s like, ‘I want to join the gymnastics team,’” Court said. “‘Okay, well how about sending some of your stuff?’ ‘But I don’t have any stuff because I haven’t been doing gymnastics.’”

So, they laid out a plan. First of all, Linton had to get back into the sport. Court also needed to get to know her as a person, as coaches do with all recruits.

“I gave her my word that we can work on those two things,” Court said. “I said, ‘You be persistent in sending me videos,’ and we scheduled phone calls or FaceTime, text messages and things like that. And she was very, very persistent about getting me information and telling me about herself.”

Then it was time to see what she could do in person. Court didn’t go to Desert Lights, but he sent his two assistant coaches at the time, Taylor Spears and David McCreary. He wanted to find out what she looked like in person and what events she could help the team on.

“It was obviously balance beam right away,” Court said.

Linton didn’t know that, though. Spears and McCreary came to see her practice, but they didn’t talk to her afterwards. Court told her to get in touch after she got to town and into her dorm, so Linton came to Tucson in the fall of 2019 still not knowing if she would have a spot on the team.

“When I finally moved in, I was like, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m moved into my dorm,” Linto said. “And he just said, ‘Okay, come to our office. We want to talk to you.’ And at this point, I’m like, hey, it’s either do or die. Like, I made the team or I didn’t and so I feel like with that entire year of work, I just told myself, you know, I put everything that I could to be on this team. And I had nothing left to give and if that wasn’t enough, then I can be happy with what I did give.”

The coaches sat her down and gave her the news. She didn’t need to go through a formal tryout. She was on the team.

“I just broke down in tears,” Linton said. “I started crying. I’ve always been incredibly grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me to be here especially like so last minute as a walk-on and to be able to just be here and do what I love. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

With her previous knee surgeries, Linton couldn’t perform floor exercise for Arizona. The coaches also opted to keep her off vault to eliminate the stress of the landings. In addition to beam, they could use her on uneven parallel bars, although she doesn’t perform that in every meet anymore.

It may have been obvious in 2019 that Linton would help the GymCats on the beam, but it wasn’t always obvious to her that it was an event she wanted to excel on.

“I feel like beam and I have had a really weird relationship because when I was younger, I had like this underlying fear of skills that I would do on it and falling off and just being scared of throwing these huge skills that all the older girls at the time were doing, and being young, being an elite gymnast, doing those things was necessary to be successful and just to push through those fears,” Linton said. “There was times where I wanted to quit so bad....It was scary, but getting older and pushing through those fears, I found my love for the for the event and I feel like once I found that groove, it’s always been something that I’ve really dominated.”

Now, she has the chance to be the first national champion from Arizona since Heidi Hornbeek took the floor exercise as a freshman in 1997. While the GymCats have sent multiple individuals to the national championships over the past four decades and went as a team in 1993, only Hornbeek and Anna Basaldua have won individual titles. Last season, Malia Hargrove qualified as an individual on floor exercise.

The individual event finals and national team semifinals are held on the first day of competition in Fort Worth, Tex. Linton will rotate with Minnesota on Thursday, April 14 beginning at 11 a.m. MST. The event will be aired on ESPN2.