If you asked Kentucky freshman Bailey Bunn in January if she would have qualified for nationals for beam, she would have laughed.
“It was very surprising to me because the beam has never been my strongest suit,” she said.
Bunn made her beam debut week three against Missouri as a last-minute replacement when a teammate wasn’t feeling well enough to perform. She wasn’t even able to warm up prior to the competition.
“[Assistant coach Rachel Garrison] was like, I’m thinking about who I want to put in her spot,’ and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s some backups who like warmed up, we’ll be OK.’ And she was like, no, I’m going to put you in,” Bunn said.
The freshman relied on her training to hit a clutch performance for the team after two low marks before her.
“After landing that beam routine, I just broke down in tears because it was like, ‘Wow, I did it.’ She believed in me, and now I know I can do this,” Bunn said.
Bunn has been a mainstay in the beam lineup since that debut and has scored 9.900 or above five times this season.
“You could see it coming. It’s just part of the fabric,” head coach Tim Garrison said. “As a part of her fabric, she wants to have a major impact, and when you put her out there and give her the opportunity, she’s going to have a major impact.”
The freshman wasn’t always expected to make lineups at the start of preseason, but Bunn began to move from sitting on the outside of lineups to becoming a lineup contributor and eventually moving later and later in those lineups.
“She’s tough as nails, and she’s gritty,” Garrison said.
Bunn is just one of many Wildcats who had a breakthrough 2021 season. Kentucky’s opening meet of the season at Alabama featured just one returner in the floor lineup from 2020. The rest was made up of returners making the lineups for the first time and freshmen.
Kentucky lost 11 key routines from 2020 with the graduation of Mollie Korth, Alaina Kwan and Hailey Poland. Additionally, senior Ella Warren, who was the 2020 team MVP with the most points scored, was unable to compete in 2021.
“We were a little concerned going into the season, and we did have a pretty decent-sized freshman class come in, but you just never know what you’re going to get,” Garrison said, adding that he was pleasantly surprised with the contributions.
Freshman Isabella Magnelli competed on vault and beam in every competition while Bunn was a consistent all arounder. Plus, Hailey Davis contributed to the team on bars and floor over the course of the season.
The newcomers were assisted by breakout performances from upperclassman as well. Josie Angeny debuted in the all around in her junior year after she added floor. Junior Anna Hagis was named All-SEC in her first year competing on floor, and sophomore Raena Worley showcased improvement from her freshman year.
Although Worley had a strong campaign in 2020, she improved on her all around average by over two tenths this year. She competed on all four events in every competition for Kentucky this season and achieved a career-best all around score in the regional final with a 39.750, which is the highest mark for a Kentucky gymnast other than NCAA champion Jenny Hansen.
Garrison attributes Worley’s breakthrough to her newfound confidence.
“This year is all about joy,” Garrisons aid. “She felt absolutely ready and was 100% confident in everything that she was going to do.”
Worley explained that she had seen a change in her mindset since her freshman year as well.
“I was learning how to find myself in gymnastics and be confident in it [during freshman year],” Worley said.
She added that being away from the gym because of COVID-19 restrictions caused her to focus more on overall fitness in the offseason, which played a role when preseason arrived. Because of this, the regular season All-American says she can compete knowing that she’ll easily be able to hit routines every time out.
The team’s young roster—it only regularly featured two competitive routines from seniors—was less than half a tenth away from qualifying to the national championships out of the Salt Lake City regional two weeks prior. This near-miss has done nothing but motivate it for the future.
“For it to be so close, I think that that’s why it hurt the most,” Bunn said. “If we would have gone in knowing we’re definitely not going to make it—like we have no shot—then I don’t think it would have hurt as much.”
Even though it’ll only be Bunn (beam) and Worley (vault) representing Kentucky in Forth Worth rather than the whole team, regionals was a milestone mark for the program. Kentucky was able to match the highest program score in history with its 197.600 during the regional final.
“That’s something that we need to realize, because instead of just looking at it as we didn’t make nationals, we made history this year, we got the highest score that we’ve ever gotten in history,” Bunn said.
The future is bright for the program, as Kentucky will not be losing any routines from 2021 and adding four new freshmen for 2022, and the team sees it as a very realistic goal to make nationals.
“The biggest thing about our team is the joy which they carry about everyday, and that to me is the most important thing,” Garrison said. “They enjoy being in the gym, they enjoy being around each other, the staff enjoys being around them—it’s just a fun environment. That for me is probably the most important and most encouraging thing about this group, the fact they just have a sheer love for this program.”
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Article by Katie Walsh
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