Seniors Ready to Leave Mark on Level 10 Nationals Before Pursuing College Dreams

If you’re an NCAA fan, few days of the year are more exciting than level 10 nationals, as you can see the future of college gymnastics unfold in front of your eyes. And this year is especially exciting because the class of 2022 is incredibly talented, competitive and hungry for more accolades.

Cal signee Casey Brown will enter the competition with the highest qualifying score, a career high 39.325. She competes in the Senior D division and will challenge for the title with three other gymnasts who have scored over 39 points in their career. LSU signee Bryce Wilson boasts a career high 39.400, as well as a 10.0 on vault for her Yurchenko double twist. Alabama signee Gabby Gladieux, who’s been a model of consistency this year after sitting out last season due to injury, has a career high of 39.025. Finally, Ohio State signee Payton Harris scored as high as a 39.050 this year. For both Brown and Harris, their career highs were the proudest moments of their gymnastics careers. “I loved competing with my supportive team one last time,” Brown said. “They helped power me through the meet and keep me positive, and I was proud of how my routines went.”

Scores are even higher in Senior E, where the reigning Nastia Liukin Cup co-champion Nikki Smith boasts a career high of 39.450 and Utah signee Makenna Smith a 39.075. This is the division of vault excellence, too: Nikki Smith, Makenna Smith, Stanford signee Taralyn Nguyen and Iowa signee Karina Muñoz all scored perfect 10.0s on that event. For Muñoz, scoring a 10.0 was the highlight of her career so far. “This moment was so special to me because it is my senior year, and vault is my favorite event,” she explained. “Seeing that perfect 10.0 on the scoreboard was just so surreal.”

Nikki Smith also describes the moment she got a 10.0 as surreal. “I felt that it was one of my best vaults, especially when I stuck the landing—I felt it should be a 9.9 or so,” she said. “But then I heard the crowd chanting 10, and then seeing it—that was the greatest feeling. Every gymnast’s goal and dream is a 10.0. We are all always chasing that perfection.”

Similarly, for UCLA signee Selena Harris in Senior F, who also boasts a 10.0 on vault, reaching perfection was a childhood dream that she feels she shares with all her fellow gymnasts. “You always dream as a young gymnast to have a perfect 10.0—that perfect routine,” she said. “So when I finally got my 10.0, I knew I made little Selena so proud.”

In her own division, Selena Harris, who boasts a career high all-around score of 39.300, is in exquisite company. Oklahoma signee Faith Torrez, in only her first level 10 season after retiring from elite last year (although she competed level 10 prior to elite), totaled four 10.0s, three on beam and one on bars, as well as a 39.550 in the all-around. Additionally, Cal signee Miki Aderinto boasts a career high 39.100 in the all-around and a 10.0 of her own on bars. It’s an incredible achievement for a gymnast who struggled with mental blocks to the point of not having a full bar routine in the past. She and Torrez are two of only three seniors to have scored a 10.0 on bars this year. The other is Pitt signee Natalia Pawlak, who will compete in Senior E.

As they prepare for nationals, the seniors wish more than anyone else to experience the meet to the fullest—with no pressure and no regrets—as they know that it’s the last club meet of their career. “I’d say my only goal for my last nationals is to go out and finish off what I know I can do,” North Carolina signee Gwen Fink, who tied for gold on bars in 2019, said. “No place number defines what type or kind of athlete I am. The biggest thing for me is just to confidently compete the way I know I can.”

The gymnasts primarily want to enjoy themselves and to savor for the last time the feeling of being out there with their clubmates, their regional teammates and their long-time coaches. “My goal for my last national championship is to go out there and have fun with my teammates and all of Region 1, as well as [to] do the best routines I can like I have practiced all season,” Arizona State signee Kimberly Smith said. Smith, who tied for the beam title last year and got second in the all-around, remembers that day as one of the proudest of her career. “A specific moment I am very proud of is winning beam at nationals and getting second place all-around, because I really felt like all my hard work and time I put in at the gym had paid off,” she explained.

BYU signee Madison Raesly-Patton, who tied for second place on bars in 2019 before debuting internationally as an elite later that year, also wants to enjoy herself, yet she equally wishes to leave a final mark on her club career. “[I want] to go out and have fun, as well as hopefully [add] in my double layout on floor and compete it successfully,” she said. “[I] really just [want to] make my club gym coaches happy and go out with a bang.”

“Going out with a bang” is the perfect way to describe the way seniors feel about competing in their last level 10 meet. While having fun is certainly an important part of the equation, they remain athletes who dream to win, to satisfy their feelings of unfinished business and, ultimately, to leave with no regrets. 

Centenary signee Amy Foret would like to set some more personal records after winning the all-around, vault and beam in the Senior F division of the Region 3 championships last month, which is traditionally one of the most competitive in the country. It’s a stunning achievement for a Division III commit, who scored career highs on vault and in the all-around at regionals and is now hungry for more. “I am most proud of my Yurchenko full on vault; I worked hard on [it] and overcame mental blocks. I competed it for the very first time at regionals and won first place with it,” she explained. “It was always my dream to be able to compete a layout full on vault one day, and I finally did.”

Penn State signee Amani Herring, who boasts a career high 9.900 on floor, and Georgia signee Naya Howard, who scored a 9.825 twice on the same event this year, moreover, would love to win the floor title. For Herring, in particular, this would be the cherry on top of an impressive comeback after tearing her Achilles last January. 

For Payton Harris and Nikki Smith, who both fell on bars at nationals last year, hitting all four of their routines this year and, ideally, coming home with a victory, would allow them to consider their unfinished business finished. “I was in the running to win last year and fell on my last event— bars—so I definitely want to hit four for four. If I do that, I think I can be successful,” Harris said.

For Selena Harris, Gladieux and Brown, who all have a shot at the all-around title, the goal is to win but also to have fun in the process. “My goal for my last national championship is to be a national champion,” Gladieux said. “But most of all I just want to stay in the moment and enjoy every minute of the last meet of my J.O. career.”

“Honestly, I want to win nationals, but I’m trying not to say that out loud,” Brown added. “I realized this year that when I set mindset goals, I do better than when I set outcome goals, so my goals for nationals are to take everything one skill at a time, be confident in everything I do and visualize myself doing my skills perfectly before I actually do them. If I can do those three things, the quality skills will follow.”

Once the competition is over, the seniors will start packing their bags and will soon move all over the country to their respective colleges. 

Being awarded a scholarship at a top university in the U.S. is such a big and rare accomplishment that for some it’s the proudest moment of their career. Gladieux feels that it was the culmination of all her hard work. “The proudest moment in my career is earning a full athletic scholarship to the University of Alabama,” she said. “It was the moment I finally realized that all my hard work had paid off and my dreams were becoming a reality.” For Selena Harris, moreover, getting a scholarship to UCLA was a way of repaying her family for their unconditional support over the years. “I just feel like I’ve worked so hard, and my family and I have sacrificed so much—it’s just a huge accomplishment for me,” she explained.

Family bonds were one important reason why many athletes chose their respective colleges. For Brown, being a Cal gymnast was a childhood dream that her family helped foster. “I grew up near the Cal campus, so when I was little, I would go watch Cal gymnastics meets with my family. I was in the ‘cub club,’ which meant I got to sit court side near the gymnasts,” she explained. “After the meets, I’d wait in line to get the team poster signed by every gymnast. I was inspired by the girls on the team, and I always dreamed that one day I’d be out there too competing for Cal.”

The choice of college was a family affair for Herring, too. “I grew up with my dad talking about Penn State, so when I got to visit the campus, I really got the family feel just from that environment alone,” she recalled. “But seeing the gymnastics team and getting more of that feeling got me excited for the next four years, so I knew it was meant for me.”

For future Cougar Kylie Eaquinto, a two-time Utah state champion, BYU was both close to her family and felt like family. “The campus is beautiful, and it’s close to home,” she explained. “The coaches are great, and I’m excited to experience the camaraderie and team aspects of college gymnastics.”

Gladieux didn’t have any family connections with Alabama, but she still felt a family atmosphere the moment she stepped on campus. “It immediately felt like home,” she said. “The staff, coaches, team and family environment made me realize that I wouldn’t want to spend the next four years anywhere else. I am most looking forward to being a part of this amazing team and competing in Coleman Coliseum.”

Foret had a similar experience when she visited Centenary. “The minute I stepped foot on campus to visit, it had a close-knit vibe that could feel like home,” she said. “Everyone on campus seemed so joyful and happy to be there. The Centenary gymnasts were very happy to be there and were extremely close to each other.” 

The small size of the Centenary campus, moreover, means that students can enjoy small-size classes and get a lot of help from their professors. The academic side of the student-athlete experience is very important to Foret, who wishes to major in biology, as it is for Fink, who will attend North Carolina. “I chose Carolina because of the great balance between academics and athletics,” she explained. “I know no matter what program of study I choose or switch into will be one of the best… I’m excited to join such an amazing team that will help me grow in the gym and classroom.”

For many gymnasts, the passion and care the coaches displayed was what made up their minds. Muñoz was touched by the Iowa coaches’ empathy and interest in her as a person. “I chose Iowa not just because of the academics and the hometown family feel, but also because of the coaching staff’s efforts in taking the time to get to know me as an individual and not just as an athlete,” she explained. “I am beyond excited to start my collegiate career, and I look forward to competing for such an amazing and driven team.”

Similarly, Howard was blown away by Georgia’s coaching staff. “As soon as I walked on campus, I knew that Georgia was the one,” she said. “The staff there is amazing and [I] couldn’t ask for a better one. I am looking forward to helping build my team and win.”

The excitement is palpable when the athletes talk about their future college teams and the impact they hope to have on them. For Howard, “being a team means everything,” and Payton Harris loves Ohio State’s rising-program status and “would love to be a part of taking them to the top.”

For now, though, as the gymnasts get ready for nationals and wear their regional colors one last time, they can look back at their club careers knowing that they made their younger selves proud. They all overcame so much for those titles, medals and accolades, especially for a spot on their favorite collegiate gymnastics team. It was difficult, but it was worth it. “I am most proud of being able to say that I’ve made it,” Howard said. “I’ve made it through all the tough times, and I have committed to the dream school of my life.”


Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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