Canadian Duo’s Long Journey to Redemption Season for SEMO

The Southeast Missouri Redhawks were scheduled to host Centenary in a MIC matchup at home in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on March 13, 2020. The team had just put up a 194.500 at Lindenwood and was eager for a strong showing on senior night. Freshman all arounder Dahlia Solorzano-Caruso’s parents made the trek to Missouri from their home outside Toronto in Ontario, Canada, to watch the competition. 

That meet never happened.

On March 12, team members were called to the locker room an hour before practice was set to begin and learned that their season was over. 2019 had been a difficult year—rife with injuries and sheer exhaustion from healthy athletes needing to do more than ever before to fill out lineups—and 2020 was supposed to be the Redhawks’ time to put that behind them and build toward a MIC title. They’d grown from barely hitting 190 to pushing toward 195.

Suddenly, all that work was gone.

Amidst the sadness, Solorzano-Caruso and teammate Alana Fischer, also from Ontario, had no idea whether the border between the United States and Canada would close due to the pandemic.

“I was absolutely devastated,” Fischer said. But she also had to get home.

Solorzano-Caruso’s parents grabbed the pair and started the drive back to Canada immediately, for fear that they wouldn’t be able to cross the border. “It really didn’t feel real. It took a little bit of time for it to actually sink in,” Solorzano-Caruso said.

The two spent the surreal 16-hour drive to metro Toronto talking about the previous meet and how hard the team had worked. When Fischer was back home and reality set in, she cried.

From Ontario to Cape Girardeau

Solorzano-Caruso and Fischer knew each other before they were teammates at SEMO. They competed on Team Ontario at Canadian nationals and were in the same Toronto-area gym circle, despite being at different clubs.

Fischer got a text from one of her coaches during a spring semester English class, asking about Solorzano-Caruso. She responded, “Oh my God you need to recruit this girl!” Fischer described Solorzano-Caruso as a “fireball,” and was instantly excited at the possibility of being at SEMO together.  

Solorzano-Caruso wasn’t really aware of collegiate gymnastics until she came across videos on her Instagram Explore page. She was drawn in by the gymnastics she saw, noting especially the floor routines at UCLA. It was decided: NCAA gymnastics was for her.

Fischer’s influence was important, since Solorzano-Caruso’s club coaches didn’t have experience helping athletes get to the NCAA, and she drove the recruiting efforts herself.

Fischer’s interest in college gymnastics piqued when a clubmate earned a full ride scholarship to Central Michigan. Once she was aware that she could both continue gymnastics and pursue an education, she began to do her own research.

“It’s hard to get noticed by American coaches if you’re not on the Canadian National Team,” Fischer said of the recruiting process as an international recruit. She spent time researching Division I programs on College Gym Fans and College Gym News after learning about them from Oregon State head coach Tanya Chaplin, and eventually found SEMO.

Cape Girardeau was a culture shock for Fischer. “I didn’t really know what Missouri was!” she said, going on to say she was accustomed to the size and scope of metro Toronto, so a small midwestern town was an adjustment. Plus, there aren’t a huge number of Canadians at SEMO, especially student-athletes. Having her fellow countrywoman Solorzano-Caruso on the team the past two years has been enjoyable.

Both gymnasts pointed out that their parents can’t always attend events and participate in traditions like some of their teammates whose families live closer by, but they’re happy to have each other.

“We Have to Bring the Juice”

At home in Canada after the 2020 season was canceled, neither Fischer nor Solorzano-Caruso could train for three months. The Canadian government issued a longer and stricter lockdown than those experienced in the United States. 

Once gyms reopened in May, Solorzano-Caruso couldn’t return to hers. She’s an alumna of Galaxy Gymnastics, which closed due to the pandemic. While the break from training allowed her body to recover, she needed to get back in a gym, so she began training with Fischer at Manjak’s. 

“It was nice to see her face!” Solorzano-Caruso said. She appreciated training with Fischer, but learning the ins and outs of a new club on top of new Covid protocols—like carrying your own personal chalk bucket around the gym and cleaning equipment when you’re done using it—was a challenge. 

Getting back to SEMO was also difficult. Due to restrictions crossing the border, both gymnasts, who hold visas, needed to return without their families.

Solorzano-Caruso was a new driver and managed to have her mother come with her for the long haul to Missouri, but she had to return to Canada immediately after Solorzano-Caruso was back in Cape Girardeau. 

Things weren’t the same when the duo returned to the training gym, either. The Redhawks split into two groups during preseason to keep the number of people in the gym small, meaning that Fischer and Solorzano-Caruso didn’t see half their team for the duration of preseason.

Competing this year is, of course, also different. Solorzano-Caruso said that it gets tiring having to yell loud enough to root for her teammates through a mask for the duration of a meet. It takes more energy, especially since crowds are smaller and bring less energy themselves. But the team is adjusting. 

“We have to bring the juice,” Fischer added.

The Redhawks have mostly adjusted to the new protocols, and are focused on their goals in the gym.

“I’m grateful,” Solorzano-Caruso said of being an all arounder. She has competed all four events in every competition of her career. Rather than pressure—even when she was a freshman on a new campus in a new country—she feels excitement, and has her sights set on one major mistake-free meet at a time.

Fischer has taken on a leadership role as a senior and says it is a goal of hers to be there for whatever her teammates need. Her personal mantra is to be “one-tenth better” every time out. While she has thought about taking her extra “Covid year” of eligibility on days when she feels good, she recognizes that her body is too tired for another season. 

She’s not fully done with gymnastics, though. She’s applying to graduate school programs for speech language pathology in the United States, including at some schools that have gymnastics teams. She’s already been in touch with some coaches about volunteering if she ends up at one of those institutions. Fischer wants to be around gymnastics next year, even if she’s just doing the laundry.

As for 2021? The Redhawks want to win the MIC title, and they’re fueled by 2020’s unfinished business.

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Article by Emily Minehart

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