Kentucky is the SEC’s perennial bubble team, holding steady at No. 5 while the other programs have risen and fallen around it. This year, however, the Wildcats have made waves, beating out Alabama and Auburn to rank third in the conference and snag a coveted spot in the evening session of the SEC championship for the first time since 2019, ultimately finishing fourth.
“When we jumped [Alabama] and made it to the afternoon session, we were so high! It was so exciting,” said graduate student Arianna Patterson.
After sitting out her freshman season due to injury, Patterson has been a fixture in the Wildcats’ vault lineup since 2020, making occasional appearances on beam and floor. This season is different, though: Patterson isn’t just plugging holes, she’s an essential contributor on all three events. In addition to newfound consistency, she’s notched 9.950 or higher on each in 2023.
“I’ve been working on my mentality because physically, I feel like I’ve always had it in me,” said Patterson. “It was just I needed to get mentally strong.”
She attributes that mental strength in part to journaling. She’s found the practice so beneficial that she’s even published a version specifically for gymnasts.
“I made what I wanted for myself, but I knew it could help others,” Patterson said. “I thought, ‘You know, what? Do we need to just really get it out there?’ I mean, it’s been helping me!”
Teammate Isabella Magnelli—who, like Patterson, is one of the Wildcats’ key players on vault, beam, and floor—is also having her best season yet and is currently tied for ninth nationally on beam. She, too, can pinpoint a critical change in her preparation outside of the gym.
“Last year at regionals, I wanted to write the word ‘tight’ on my wrist in Sharpie, but I ended up writing ‘trust,’” said Magnelli. “Ever since that regionals—from practices to competitions this year—I’ve just been saying, ‘Trust in the Lord. Have faith,’ and that’s really been the switch that has gotten me to where I am this season.”
She, along with Patterson, has also noticed a shift in the team’s approach to competition as well.
“This year, we’re not worrying about, ‘Oh, we need to get this score,’ or, ‘This team scored this for this event,’” said Magnelli. “We’ve really been just living in the moment, and I think that’s what has helped us—just being excited for that one person that’s up there killing it.”
Patterson notes that “being in the moment” also applies to individual scores.
“We sometimes do get frustrated because we think, ‘Oh, that [10.000] would have been this for me,’ but we focus on what we can control now and that just helps our energy.”
So far, Kentucky has parlayed that focus and energy into a remarkable 2023 season in which the team has smashed a litany of program records. And it’s showing no signs of slowing down heading into the postseason. The Wildcats will be traveling to Norman for regionals, where they’ll face a rematch against No. 2 seed Alabama. It’s also worth noting that the Wildcats haven’t scored less than 197.500 at regionals since 2018, yet have missed out each year while teams in other regions have advanced with scores several tenths lower. Kentucky aims to end that streak in Norman.
Whatever happens next, though, Magnelli thinks this year has definitely been one for the books.
“Being with this team each competition has just been amazing,” she said. “We make such great memories and just continue to break score records. I mean, there’s nothing that compares to that.”
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Article by Claire Billman
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