Level 10 Nationals Holds a Special Place for Graduating Seniors

Daytona Beach, Florida. The city of white-sand beaches, race driving and… level 10 gymnastics. For the second time in four years, the DP national championships is back in the “World’s Most Famous Beach,” which revives senior competitors’ sweet memories of comradeship, friendship, and success.

The top recruit in the class of 2024, Utah signee Avery Neff, won her first national all-around title in Daytona Beach in 2021—“the cherry on top” of a weekend spent making friends by the sea. “My birthday was the next day and all my emotions were just through the roof,” she said. “It was the best weekend and I’ll always remember it.”

California signee CJ Keuneke, a four-star recruit, had a similar experience. She hung out with her gym friends at the beach before the meet and derived a lot of “positive energy” from it that allowed her to have a great competition. She finished sixth in the all around and second on beam. Such results, she argues, contributed to her “recruitability” the following June, when her recruiting process began.

Oklahoma signee Kelsey Slade, a five-star recruit, feels like she’s come full circle because her first nationals was also in Daytona Beach. “I’m going back to where it all began, and I couldn’t be more excited,” she said.

Emotions will be running high on competition day for all the competitors, but the it will hold extra importance for the graduating seniors. Nationals is the last club meet of their career, the last time they get to compete with their coaches and gym friends, and the final time they get to represent their region. The next time they will put on a competition leotard, it will be January 2025 and they will be college gymnasts.

Given the symbolic significance of this meet, most seniors claim that their goal is not to win, but to embrace it all, have fun, and leave with no regrets. Oklahoma signee Elle Mueller, the reigning Nastia Liukin Cup champion, wants to leave it all on the floor. “I absolutely want to have the time of my life out there on the floor and go lights out,” she said. “Whether that means I win or I don’t, I want to know I did the best I could do and had the most fun.”

Keuneke holds a similar view. Senior gymnasts, she argued, feel more pressure to deliver and be consistent because of the mounting expectation of how they will fare in college, but she doesn’t fear it. The challenges she’s endured throughout her career have boosted her confidence and she will not “let these expectations affect [her] like they have in the past….For this last club competition,” she said, “I want to lay it all out on the floor and I will not hold back.”

The No. 2 recruit in the class of 2024, Oklahoma signee Lily Pederson, also hopes to hit four for four and enjoy the experience because, she said, “at the end of the day, if I did my best and had fun, that’s all that matters and I’d be happy.” Similarly, her future teammate Slade hopes “to end the season with confidence, enjoyment, and a solid performance at nationals.”

Neff, who has won everything there is to win at the club level, will go into nationals with one simple expectation: “to enjoy it. It’s my last time competing with my club, and my coaches are like my parents, so I really just want to live in the moment as long as I can with the time I have left with them,” she explained. 

Those gymnasts who feel they still have something to prove don’t shy away from saying that they hope to bring home some hardware. Ohio State signee Rylee Guevara, a four-star recruit, has had a breakthrough year this season—it’s an achievement that she credits to a different mindset, which allows her to compete calmer and more free. As a result, she hopes to win at least one title at nationals.

Similarly, Penn State signee Allie Kaempfer, another four-star recruit, is starting to master her Yurchenko one and a half on vault, which has already brought her considerable success. She competed it for the first time at nationals last year, where she earned a bronze medal, and scored her first perfect 10.0 at regionals a few weeks ago. Both results were dreams come true. Kaempfer and her coaches hope to keep the momentum going and to “improve on that success” at nationals this year. 

Finally, Rutgers signee Donna Uhlenberg, a three-star recruit who came off a career-high all-around score at regionals, hopes that something special will be in store for her Region 8 team. Through the years, she explained, her team was always “supportive and uplifting” and she hopes to help it place in the top three at nationals.

Although nationals will be bittersweet, the excitement will be palpable. Seniors will show off their best gymnastics in front of their future NCAA coaches, who they will follow to their respective colleges this summer. For some of them, the move has been a long time coming. Guevara, for one, first wished to commit to Ohio State in 2018, when she was a level 7, and can’t wait to join what already feels like a family. Similarly, Pederson first met Oklahoma head coach KJ Kindler when she was in sixth grade and has wanted to be a Sooner ever since. To join such a prestigious legacy, she said, is “an honor.”

Keuneke’s love for the Bay Area also goes back a long way to when she was only 12 or 13 years old. At the time, she and her family took a trip to San Francisco and Keuneke fell in love with it to the point that, from that moment on, she started researching colleges nearby. Cal Berkeley stood out the most.

“I couldn’t have been more excited when the Cal coaches reached out during my recruiting process,” she said. “I immediately saw what a great program they were building and how genuine [head coaches] Justin [Howell] and Liz [Crandall-Howell] are as people. It’s hard to describe how I felt on my official visit, except that I felt at home.” Howell and Crandall-Howell, she added, were the only coaches who stayed in touch with her after her official visit, and “it was easy to say yes” when they offered her a scholarship.

Cal’s historic second-place finish at nationals last month was thrilling for Keuneke, who believes it will “light a fire” in all Golden Bear gymnasts going into season next year. “It is so inspiring to see how far the program has come in such a short time,” she added. “The team competes with utmost joy because this is the sweetest, funniest, and closest group of people in the NCAA. I cannot wait to join them in achieving success, feeling happiness, and loving the sport of gymnastics with all my heart. I’m all in.”

For many gymnasts, joining their future college teams feels like going home. Kaempfer felt that she “belonged” the moment she stepped on to the Penn State campus, while four-star recruit Olivia Kelly chose Missouri because “the team, the school, and even the incoming gymnasts felt and still feel like home.”

Neff, who’s from Utah, chose the Red Rocks because “it is really a home there.”

“Living in Utah I’ve always seen the Red Rocks billboards on the freeways, and when I was little, I always told my mom that [that] was going to be me when I grew up,” she said. “[N]ow that I had the chance to actually make that dream come true, I knew Utah was meant for me.”

Slade knew that Oklahoma would be her “future home” the moment she stepped foot on campus. “I knew that I needed a home away [from] home, and Oklahoma is just that place,” she said. “I am so thankful to join a university with such elite athletes, the best coaching staff, and a place that I will call home.”

Oklahoma’s shocking exit in the semi-final at nationals last month made the future Sooners even prouder of their chosen team. Slade said that it meant “everything” to her that the Sooners handled the day off “with such class,” while Mueller argued that it showed that everyone is “human,” even “the best of the best…There is so much heart on the team, and [the] coaches care so much for you that you are almost joining a family—a family I cannot wait to be a part of,” she added.

Competing one last time at nationals makes the gymnasts realize how far they’ve come. Kelly will enter nationals with the highest qualifying score, a 39.425. As both a level 10 and an elite gymnast who competed at the world championships for Barbados, she believes that the transition from elite to level 10 routines has helped her become a more consistent athlete because it allowed her to focus on the details of her skills. Although at regionals she wasn’t focusing on her scores, she’s delighted to know that her best gymnastics was enough to make her the national frontrunner. 

Keuneke, who’s been a level 10 gymnast for six years and has qualified to nationals every one of them, thinks that with every qualification she’s proven to herself that she “can overcome adversity in every situation.”

Pederson, who’s also qualified to nationals every year since her very first level 10 season in 2018, reminds herself that while no one even expected her to qualify to nationals the first time around, she exceeded everyone’s expectations, qualifying and even tying for fifth place in the all around. “It just always reminds me that you can do anything you set your mind to if you believe in yourself and work hard for it,” she said.

Mueller, who won the all-around title in her first appearance at nationals in 2019, also remembers the meet as a learning moment. “I remember … nailing my beam routine right after I had tweaked my back in beam warmup and I didn’t know if I would be able to push through,” she said. “It was such a thrilling but scary moment that ultimately led to so much joy and proud feelings.”

Ultimately, competing one more time at nationals on the eve of leaving for college, is proof to all participating gymnasts that all their hard work over the years has paid off. As two-time all-around national champion Neff put it, “I’ve qualified to every nationals since my first year being level 10. To see really just how far I’ve come is a win of its own.”

READ THIS NEXT: 2024 Level 10 Nationals: By the Numbers

Article by Talitha Ilacqua

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.