It’s Friday of the 2021 regional championships. Elizabeth Culton is preparing to mount the beam. She takes a moment, breathes deeply and whispers to herself “you got this.”
How she ultimately performs isn’t just important for her all around performance on the day, it could send her to the national championships.
Culton, a sophomore at North Carolina, is ranked No. 6 in the country on the precarious event, and with a hit she stands a fighting chance at advancing to compete in Fort Worth on April 16. And how she made it to this point speaks to her hard work and dedication every day in the gym.
During her freshman year, Culton made a splash in NCAA gymnastics, earning EAGL Rookie of the Year and scoring a season high of 9.900 on beam. However, the sophomore took things to the next level in 2021, recording a beam NQS of 9.950 and earning first-team regular season All-America honors.
“From freshman to sophomore year there’s been a new level of confidence in her gymnastics,” interim head coach Marie Denick said. “When she goes up on the beam, she knows she’s going to hit a great beam routine.”
That new confidence has not only helped her on that event but on the other three as well. With a year of competition under her belt, she’s able to shift her focus to other things more pertinent in improving her routines rather than simply recording a hit.
“Just having that college experience from last year has really helped. I feel more confident in my gymnastics,” Culton said. “Before I was more focused on getting through the routine and making it for my team, and now I am able to think more about the smaller corrections during the routines.”
Assistant coach Kendal Moss, who is the Tar Heels’ primary beam coach, says that the event comes naturally to Culton. When the team first came back together in August, Moss was planning to take things slow since a lot of the gymnasts had lost training time due to COVID. She had them working skills on the floor and said they could go to the low beam if they wanted to. Culton had a different plan.
After doing a few skills on the floor, she told Moss she was ready to go to the high beam and immediately did a perfect back handspring layout series.
“She’s definitely super comfortable up there,” Moss said. “Beam is her favorite event, so that does help. She’s always excited to come over to beam during practice.”
Even though Culton has been extremely successful on the event, Moss knows that she can be even better.
“We’ve gotten four 9.950s throughout the season,” she said. “We’re hoping for the 10, so we’ve been working on the little details as she heads into regionals.”
Beam has consistently been the Tar Heels’ strongest event this season, and a lot of that success can be attributed to Culton leading the lineup. Her success rubs off on the rest of her teammates and motivates them to be even better.
“Being able to train next to her on beam throughout this whole season and seeing her be so successful definitely motivates me in practice every single day,” teammate Hallie Thompson said. “At [the EAGL championship], right before I went I said, ‘I’m going to do this for you,’ because I train next to her, and I am able to see her [success].”
That motivation led to North Carolina scoring a season high of 49.275 on the event at the conference championship, as well as both Thompson and Culton sharing the event title. Despite coming just short of qualifying for regionals this season, they are more motivated than ever to make it into the top 36 next year.
“What I learn from this trip and this meet, I can use to be a leader next year,” Culton said. “Hopefully we can take the whole team back, and I think having the experience as an individual will help me be able to guide and lead those who haven’t been before.”
Denick said that while the team is disappointed their season ended at EAGLs, the motivation to be able to bring the whole team next year is apparent. The Tar Heels hope to build on what they learned from this season to grow and have even more success in the future.
“We had a great, consistent season, and I don’t think anybody can take away that from us,” Denick said. “We built a great foundation. We know how to make routines, and now it’s going to be hitting routines and trusting our training.”
With an accomplished freshman class coming in next year, including College Gym News five-star recruit Lali Dekanoidze, the future is bright for the Tar Heels. Thompson expressed how excited she is for the class coming in and the future of the program as a whole.
“I’m really excited for our program to build as a whole, but I think [Culton] has really taken that step individually that we can build off of for next year,” Thompson said.
No matter what happens in Athens on Friday, Culton knows it’s not the end. There’s more ahead for the Tar Heels than that moment. Her team doesn’t just hope to compete together at regionals next season. They plan on it.
Article by Mary Emma Burton
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