It would be fair to call Heather Brink something of a leotard junkie. An elite gymnast who transitioned to NCAA star, she donned dozens during her competitive career (husband Jon recalls helping her hand-wash leos after her collegiate meets). Now, in her second year as head coach for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, Brink finds great joy—and stress-relief—in dreaming up fabulous custom designs for her team.
So, just how far is Brink willing to go for a good leotard?
This summer, she and Jon traveled from their home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to GK Elite Headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania, to turn her concepts into reality for the 2020 season. Brink—with her own glitter-accented sketches in hand—met with Wendy Martin, Vice President of Global Gymnastics Sales and former All-American at Michigan, and Jeanne Diaz, Senior Designer for Gymnastics, to tour the manufacturing floor and finalize concepts for four new Nebraska leotards.
Three of the initial designs (including one by sophomore Abby Johnston) were selected by the team members with a fourth chosen by Brink. Though the final selections aren’t necessarily what Brink herself would have chosen, she felt it was only fair to give deference to her athletes’ choices. “I like to give autonomy to the team since they’re the ones wearing the leotard, not me.” She also noted that they prefer three quarter sleeves to facilitate quick grip changes, and thus incorporated that feedback into the designs.
Form and function aren’t the only criteria that must be considered when designing an NCAA leotard. Both the coach and the designers must be cognizant of various compliance issues: Licensing of conference and university logos, university color and font standards, logo size and placement requirements (as Brink noted, “The ‘N’ is sacred!”).
GK Elite is the leotard provider for over three-quarters of NCAA gymnastics programs, so Martin and her team are no strangers to this type of collaboration (or the level of detail it requires). “College coaches are great to work with because they’re usually pretty black and white about their vision and what they want,” she said. “Heather has been especially easy to work with. She has inspirations—sometimes a drawing she’s done, sometimes a dress or an amazing belt or something—and we bring that inspiration to life and [make it] ready to wear in competition.”
Diaz’s job is finding the perfect balance between the aesthetic and the practical. Her role requires not only an eye for design, but also an expert understanding of how each fabric and material moves, feels and responds to the stresses of gymnastics.
She provides realistic parameters for her clients, sometimes expanding upon their preconceived expectations (Brink was thrilled to learn she could make a more open, elaborate back than she’d initially envisioned).
Diaz also helped Brink incorporate an Easter egg into the leos. Though its mascot is still the Cornhuskers, the University of Nebraska as a whole is moving away from corn imagery in favor of a “Big Red” theme. Brink still wanted to pay homage to her Husker roots, however, and requested a two-toned crystal corncob be hidden within every design. “It’s kind of a fun thing,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s corny (no pun intended).” Jon added, “Fans can call it ‘Hide the Husk.’”
By mid-December, with the 2020 season looming, Brink and her team were anticipating their leos’ imminent arrival. She emphasized that their late delivery was due to last-minute adjustments requested by her and the team, which GK was happy to accommodate. “We got the samples, which were identical to what we asked for. Once we saw it on an actual body versus seeing it on paper, there were things we wanted to change.”
The collaboration has been a positive experience for Brink, one she thinks will influence her future designs. “It was really cool to get to see how the leotards were made and the actual process,” she said. “Seeing and understanding how something is made helps you understand the design, so [when you’re designing], you can keep some of that in mind.”
Much like collegiate gymnastics, bespoke leotards require a significant amount of time, dedication and perfectionism to pull off. For Brink, the investment has been well worth it. “I love to make completely custom leotards [for my gymnasts], so it was nice to be able to work so closely with [GK Elite] and make that happen.”
Two of the Huskers’ new leotards have already been debuted this season to positive reviews. No doubt, fans are eagerly awaiting the remaining designs (and keeping a lookout for the crystal corncobs hidden within them).
Article by Claire Billman
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