In the fall of 2012, Jen Llewellyn, then Kesler, went to Lindenwood as a graduate student. It would be the inaugural season for Lindenwood gymnastics. Her title as a graduate assistant for the program was quickly scratched and updated after the first meet of the year, when at 23 she stepped into the position as a head coach. Without a single misstep, her golden touch lead Lindenwood to six conference titles and three national championships in nine years until another team close to her heart was sorely in need of a coach. Now she’s brought her touch home to Washington.
The Washington gymnastics team found itself well-positioned for the past few decades, dropping under a No. 28 ranking just a handful of times. However, after a tumultuous few seasons and much more going on behind the scenes, a roster of talented gymnasts felt discouraged and downtrodden, and Washington dropped to No. 42 at the end of 2021—a far cry from its 19th and 11th place finishes in the 2019 and abbreviated 2020 seasons.
Enter Llewellyn, poised to make something of the 48th iteration of the Washington gymnastics program, a team that would become the Great 48. In the course of a single season, Llewellyn and her team, including husband Cody Llewellyn and Jeffrey Langenstein, a former assistant coach from Lindenwood and San Jose State, brought the program back to life. Together, the three bring a common philosophy: The person comes before the gymnast. The Washington coaching staff brings authenticity and well-rounded knowledge to the program. Llewellyn doesn’t limit coaching knowledge to gymnastics, either. She looks to successful coaches in other sports as well, carefully picking and choosing what will bring out the best in her coaching so she can better help her own athletes.
Her hard work behind the scenes has once again emerged in her newest position. Washington started the season cruising back to form, bouncing around between No. 31 to No. 38 for the first nine weeks, but as the season drew to a close, the Huskies found a spark—and perhaps their drive for consistency, as was their motto this year—which pushed them into 29th. Heading into the postseason, including an NCAA regionals to be hosted at home, the Huskies were in a solid 25th, ready not only to play host but prove they had what it took to be back on the map.
In what was a razor-thin regional semifinal, Washington held firmly in second place to Alabama after three rotations, continuing to hold off Michigan State by a slim margin. It wasn’t enough to hold off the Spartans, even after turning in the second-highest bars score that season. But for a team that couldn’t break 49 on an event in 2021, let alone a 197, that 49.300 was still a sweet ending to a season no one could have predicted.
Except maybe those who have been closely following Llewellyn all these years. Starting from scratch is a position she’s been in before. Taking a first-year gymnastics program from 63rd to 36th and qualifying to an NCAA regional in 2019 from that first year in 2013 isn’t something to dismiss. There wasn’t much pressure with Lindenwood.
“There were no expectations,” Llewellyn said. “Each year they had the opportunity to try and be better. The team couldn’t fail because they were always trying to make more history.” In the USAG division, Llewellyn and her team took the program from eighth to second and a national title in 2015, another title in 2016 and a first-place ranking in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, the team added MIC conference titles to its hat
Washington’s rise to regionals was no accident. Llewellyn said the season hinged on two defining moments. When traveling to the Metroplex Challenge and competing against Stanford, Denver and Oklahoma, all top teams in the country, the Huskies didn’t bring a ton of expectations or pressure in their suitcases. Instead, it was chance “to show who we are to a lot of people who don’t normally get to watch Washington live.” After scoring a 196.825 and coming in second to only Oklahoma, the team realized just what potential they had, opening their eyes “to just how good they could be.” The momentum continued to shift in favor of Washington. From there the team hosted Utah at home just two days later, and although the Huskies didn’t come up with a win that day, their 197.275 put heat on Utah’s 197.950.
The second moment would come six days later when Washington would travel to UCLA and come up short, scoring just over a 194. These two dramatically different experiences lead to a pivotal moment, perhaps demonstrating the Llewellyn-Langenstein phenomena best. On the ride home, Cody began searching for days and times the team could attend another meet to take pressure off the upcoming Pac-12 championship and not leave its qualification status in a perilous balance.
Cue senior Amara Cunningham.
The coaching staff sat down with Cunningham to get a feel for their idea. Llewellyn credits Cunningham’s level-headedness and read on the team to get her initial thoughts on adding a meet to the season, and most importantly, whether the team would want to even add this meet to its already packed season.
At a team meeting, they presented the idea. At the time, there was a 90% chance of the meet even happening, but Llewellyn said they wouldn’t go forward unless everyone was on board. It was “make or break, but this [was] really going to help give [the team] a better shot and not stress out about Pac-12s and make it to regionals.”
The team was all in and hit the road for BYU. And although it ultimately counted a fall, it was enough to secure a spot for regionals. As Llewellyn put it, with all of these events unfolding, it was a chance for the team to “see how good they were; we could see it as coaches, but [we] finally got them to believe they were capable of success.”
With such a packed few weeks, any coach would have gymnasts back in the gym immediately, to iron out details, prepare to look its best at a home regional meet. Llewellyn didn’t see it that way. The team did well enough at Pac-12s to skip the play-in, affording the team another day of rest. The team was rightfully mentally and physically exhausted, so it didn’t train as much leading up to regionals.
And although the team didn’t have as many practices as she would’ve hoped, Llewellyn seemingly didn’t lose too much sleep. “We do well at home.” There was no reason to push any small injuries, as they were just happy to be there. The approach paid off. Although warmups didn’t go as smoothly as the Huskies would hope, the attitude was “whatever happens, who cares, we’re at home.” It’s important to note that Llewellyn doesn’t say this flippantly or thoughtlessly, but with the confidence of a coach who trusts her team to be at ease performing for a home crowd on its own familiar equipment.
After an incredible beam rotation, Brenna Brooks made her 2022 floor debut. Langenstein pieced together the routine for Brooks to give Washington a much-needed score. Skylar Killough-Wilhelm kept the momentum going with one of, if not her best, vaults of the season, and put up a 9.900 to kick off bars the next rotation. The team went through “every emotion” as the meet progressed, ultimately landing in third. But overall, the Huskies ended the year hungry, content and excited.
It’s no mystery that Washington bounced from 42nd to 21st in a single season, including improving from a beam team that went from 40th to 15th, although Llewellyn credits her beamers and the incredible depth she can pull from for that success. Washington is on track to continue on this rise.
In a world of riddles, you can ponder for days whether potential finds Llewellyn or if Llewellyn naturally spins everything she touches into gold. She’s already eyeing the upcoming season, ready to set standards and expectations just a little bit higher and to keep reaching. She credits the ones who guided her and served as her own inspiration, from her club years through college. Llewellyn doesn’t take herself too seriously, though. “It’s just gymnastics.” Her easy-going personality and friendly charisma surely a key to her coaching style. But her ability to harness the talent, passion and athleticism is rare. Success isn’t a given, but Llewellyn and her team don’t rest and wait for the greatness to come to them. Instead, the Huskies have their heads down, eyes forward and are hungry for that next bite at the postseason. And they have less than 335 days to get that work done.
Article by Allison Freeman
Like what you see? Consider donating to support our efforts throughout the year!