Minnesota Making the Best of an Unprecedented Season

Streets and sidewalks that are normally filled with the bustle of students sat mostly empty, save for the lone utility vehicle sitting idle near the crosswalk, waiting patiently for the light to change. Campus was quiet—eerily quiet—for the middle of the afternoon on a Friday. The only indication that anything was happening inside Maturi Pavilion was the lone sign placed near a side entrance, indicating where media should check-in.

A passerby would never know that just inside the building one of the most anticipated season openers for the Minnesota women’s gymnastics team was set to begin.

The meet, which ended in a win and a record-breaking season opening score of 197.025 for the Gophers, should have been a jubilant and celebrated return to action following an abrupt end to the 2020 season. But because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, stands that would normally be filled to the brim with screaming fans dressed in maroon and gold, as well as the occasional row of bare-chested men with “Gophers” written on their chests, instead sat mostly empty; cardboard cutouts decorated the lower level of the arena in their place. 

It was different for the media, too. Instead of simply checking in and receiving a press pass, working journalists were directed to a checkpoint to confirm they submitted a COVID-19 pre-screen and have their temperature taken by a futuristic-looking machine that scanned each individual’s forehead. From there, media was directed to the “crows nest”—which sits high above the arena—a far cry from their normal position on the floor next to the vault runway. 

It was easy to see the differences from that vantage point. Between each rotation a cleaning crew diligently cleaned mats and equipment; spirit fingers and elbow bumps replaced high fives and hugs; chairs were staggered across the floor for the gymnasts to be able to safely distance while taking sips of water between events. Socially distanced selfies were taken instead of the typical hugs and reunions between former club-mates who now found themselves on opposing teams. There were no score sheets being rushed over between rotations, no printed programs or media guides—instead, the media was provided with a link to a Google Drive folder where they could locate all of the necessary information digitally. 

The post-meet protocol was new too: Rather than being able to conduct interviews on the floor—grabbing the coach or gymnast briefly following the conclusion of the meet—a Zoom press conference was arranged instead.  

Given all the changes the pandemic brought to the pre-season, it would be easy to assume that the season would produce a conservative start for the Gophers. But that wasn’t the case at all.

“We started off a little slower, but not too far behind where we were last year,” head coach Jenny Hansen said about their pre-season training. “They trained really hard at their home gyms [over the summer] and came in in really good shape.”

Each team has faced its own set of unique challenges dealing with new protocols, and Minnesota was no exception. One of the biggest differences actually occurred outside the gym, with the team no longer being able to bond in the ways it was accustomed to. 

“We really had to make the most of the time we had in the gym because we didn’t spend a lot of time outside of the gym, outside of our apartments and [outside of] who we live with to get that bonding,” senior Mary Korlin-Downs said. 

“In past years we’ve had retreats and we’ve had team bonding events, [and] we didn’t have that this year,” she continued. “[Instead] we really focused on cheering loud in the gym and making every second count because we don’t know if COVID is going to hit hard and if the season is gonna end.”

Practice looked different, too, with smaller training groups, more spacing and smarter, more efficient plans. Despite all the challenges, though, the Gophers have learned to adapt and make the most of the time they spend together. It’s an understatement to say the team has had to adapt and learn as it goes.

“We’ve been doing it all year long. Even for our athletes this summer we thought we were coming back, and then we couldn’t, and then we had to wait a couple more weeks and then we couldn’t,” Hansen said. “They just dealt with it. Knowing as hard as it was, it probably has just [led to] an enormous appreciation for being here right now.”

The abrupt end to the season last March was a devastating blow to the athletes, felt even more acutely due to the fact it occurred on the heels of a season-high and on the verge of the team’s first sold-out meet in program history—a highly anticipated matchup against reigning national champion Oklahoma.

The seniors in particular felt cheated from the experience of knowing their last meet would be their last time doing gymnastics. For them, being back in the Pav and competing in front of their friends and family was a blessing they didn’t think they’d get the chance to do again. 

“I kept saying ‘I wish I had one more meet back in the Pav. I want to be back in the Pav one more time,’” said Korlin-Downs, who was granted a scholarship to return to the Gophers this season for a sixth-year while obtaining her masters degree. “I’m just trying to enjoy every single second of it.”

And after feeling like the first meet of the 2021 season would never come, Hansen struggled to find the words to describe the feeling of returning and competing again. “Walking in the arena for the first time, I just… I know [the team] felt the same way.”

The energy in the arena was palpable. The 100 or so friends and family that were allowed to attend the meet made up for the lack of normal attendance numbers in sheer volume, school spirit and the familiar maroon and gold striped overalls and painted faces. 

The gymnasts fed off that energy, showing the fire they must have felt being back through each and every routine and capping off the night with a particularly exuberant floor rotation. It was clear by the constant jumping, dancing and screaming for their teammates that every athlete was thrilled to be there, enjoying doing the thing they loved and knowing all too well that the season was far from guaranteed. 

“That’s my No. 1 goal,” Korlin-Downs said. “We know that we do better when we have fun, so we always say a million times before the meet starts just have fun.”

READ THIS NEXT: LIVE BLOG: No. 25 Iowa at No. 11 Minnesota

Article by Kalley Leer

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