Angelica Labat was concentrating as hard as she could, doing her best to keep the nerves at bay as she took her place at the end of the vault runway in Tuscaloosa. Carefully breaking it down one skill at a time, she focused on each individual action: first the run, then hitting the table and finally, visualizing the landing.
“I didn’t have the best warmup,” Labat explained. “I didn’t even warm up my [actual] vault.”
But the moment her feet touched the mat in competition, she knew she couldn’t have done it any better.
“I could only hope that I got the score that I did,” she said. “But [I knew] that was one of my best.”
Labat, who is a sophomore at Illinois State, made history with that vault: She became the first gymnast in program history to qualify to nationals. But she didn’t know it immediately.
“I knew I was in first, but [I knew] I had to stay in first after the second session,” Labat said. She also knew she was up against some big competition with Oklahoma, Missouri and Maryland still having yet to compete that evening. She needn’t have worried: Labat not only advanced, she finished first overall across both sessions, defeating the entire third-ranked Oklahoma vault lineup in the process.
Labat was faced with a unique challenge on her path to the national championships in Fort Worth. She was competing at regionals without her team—only she and teammate Cameron Topp qualified for the competition—so the atmosphere and experience was totally different. Instead of being able to lean on the support and feel the confidence-boost that competing with your team can provide, she instead had to find her footing while rotating with Iowa State.
“I would have liked my team to be with me on the floor,” Labat said. “But they acted as my team, and it was still a good time.”
Labat has been a standout athlete for the Redbirds from the moment she walked into the gym last season, and her freshman campaign was evidence of that. She was named the MIC Newcomer of the Year, received first-team honors on bars, beam and in the all around and second-team honors on floor. She had been actively recruited by head coach Bob Conkling from the moment she came onto his radar.
“We received an email about her, and then almost the exact same day one of my former athletes [coaching in that area] texted me and said, ‘You need to look at this [athlete], Angelica Labat,’” Conkling said.
They were able to secure a visit to campus shortly thereafter, and Labat said she immediately felt at home in Normal.
“The whole team acted like they already knew me,” Labat said. “I’m kind of awkward in those situations, but it felt like I already knew them, like I was supposed to be there.”
Labat arrived on campus and immediately got to work. She followed her immensely successful freshman season with an even more impressive sophomore effort, once again taking home multiple accolades—including MIC Gymnast of the Year—qualifying to compete at regionals and becoming the first Illinois State gymnast to qualify to nationals.
“Angelica is such a talented athlete,” Conkling said. “It’s just amazing to have the success that she had this year.”
Despite her relentless work ethic, Labat said that nationals wasn’t even on her radar when the year began. Instead, she was focused on making little improvements, like better consistency and keeping a positive attitude. “Making it to nationals was not a goal this year. I only hoped to make it this far; it was definitely a big shock.”
Labat’s success on the national stage serves the program well, and has not gone unnoticed by Conkling.
“Her doing well at regionals has given us more exposure,” Conkling said. “I got texts from all kinds of people congratulating me and our team and the success Angelica had at regionals.”
He was quick to add that he doesn’t want the pressure to get to his star athlete, and wants to keep her focused on the goal at hand: a successful nationals experience, regardless of the outcome.
“If she can do the same thing at nationals and place, that would be fantastic, but I just want her to go in and enjoy the experience, learn from the experience and have fun there, and whatever happens happens. We’re gonna be excited no matter what.”
For now Labat is staying focused in the gym, fine-tuning her vault for the national stage. Conkling was quick to praise her work ethic: “If she realizes that there’s an event or a skill that’s preventing her from winning or getting a high score, then she’s going to work that until it gets better,” Conkling said.
Training for a big competition as a solo athlete is not without its challenges, though.
“It’s difficult for the athlete that qualifies because they still have an assignment, where everyone else is playing in the gym,” Conkling explained. “She’s watching all her teammates playing around [with new skills], and she still has a structured workout.”
He explained how Labat is an athlete who not only loves training but one that is always pushing herself in the gym and wanting to attempt new skills, so watching her teammates being able to do just that while she is limited is challenging.
”[It] has been a little difficult for her, but other than that she comes in and does her job. If there’s time to play, we’ll let her play a little bit as long as she’s really careful,” Conkling laughed.
But having a different practice structure in the gym doesn’t mean her team is any less supportive: “Every time she takes a turn, [the whole team] is cheering for her,” Conkling said.
“And the good news is most of my team will be with me in the stands on Friday,” Labat added.
In reality, her experience at regionals likely served as good practice for what she will be facing in Fort Worth: once again competing as an individual, rotating with a team that is not her own—this time around, California.
“I’m excited to be with Cal,” Labat said. “[The] team has reached out to me on Twitter to tell me they’re excited to compete with me and be alongside me.”
The competition for the vault title will be fierce: There are seven athletes who have proven they are capable of being perfect on the event this season, and several more whose national qualifying scores (NQS) sit right in that mid-9.9 range. But it’s a challenge Labat feels ready for.
“I hope to compete [my vault] the same way,” she said. She is staying focused on her training and breaking down the vault step by step so as not to get ahead of herself.
“Angelica is a winner, she likes to win and she trains like she wants to win,” Conkling said. “She is right in there with everybody else when she does a good vault.”
You can watch Labat compete for the national vault title on Friday, April 16 at 1 p.m. EST on ESPN2 or the ESPN App.
Article by Kalley Leer with special help from Katherine Weaver; photo courtesy of Dennis Banks and Illinois State University Athletics
Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the year!