After a Two-Year Break From Gymnastics, Brianna Lucas Earns Scholarship to Eastern Michigan

At a restaurant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in late May, Brianna Lucas couldn’t stop crying. Eastern Michigan head coach Katie Minasola had just offered her a full scholarship, starting in the fall. The shock was so great that Minasola had to repeat her offer twice. “I’d love for you to have the full-ride,” she told Lucas. “Yes, me too,” Lucas replied. “No, Bri,” Minasola said, placing a hand on her elbow. “I’m officially offering you the full-ride.”

For Lucas, the offer felt like being seen for the first time. A gymnast at Hill’s Gymnastics from 2013 to 2020, she decided to quit the sport during the pandemic, just when she was starting to be recruited by some of the best teams in the country. Once she got back into the gym in 2022, this time at Buckhead Gymnastics in her home state of Georgia, her ultimate goal was to pick up where she left off and try to earn a scholarship at a Division I school. Until Eastern Michigan’s call in late May, though, the colleges that were showing interest in her only had walk-on spots available. To Lucas, then, Minasola’s offer wasn’t simply the fulfillment of a hard-fought dream—it was a reward for her determination to recover her previous level of gymnastics and for the potential she still had in store.

Lucas started gymnastics at the age of two when her mother, following in her older sister’s footsteps, signed her and her twin up for Mommy and Me classes. At the time, gymnastics was simply fun. Lucas wasn’t thinking of college or the Olympics; she went to practice because she enjoyed learning new skills. It was only when she transitioned from classes to being on a team at North Metro Gymnastics, seeing the banners on the walls showcasing former greats from the club, that Lucas thought those goals could be hers, too.

This expectation grew in 2013 when the Lucas family moved to Maryland and Brianna started training at Hill’s, the gym that produced Olympic medalists Dominique Dawes, Elise Ray, and Courtney Kupets. Although Lucas joined the club as a level 4, being surrounded by Olympic athletes and coaches, changed her approach to the sport forever.

“I’d never been in an environment where everyone’s striving to be better than where they are at right now,” she said. “I really wanted my name up there.”

By the time Lucas started competing as a level 10 in 2018, getting a college scholarship had become her main focus. However, despite being recruited by some of the top teams, Lucas felt something was off. She didn’t have the same passion for the sport that had driven her to this point. At the time, she was training with elites Kayla DiCello, Anya Pilgrim, and Maddie Johnston under Olympic coach Kelli Hill, and the pressure was intense.

“Although I have so much respect for all of them, I fell short with my own expectations,” Lucas said. “I was starting to realize I wasn’t really doing the sport for me anymore. It was more [that] I wanted to make my parents happy, and I wanted my college to be paid for.”

Despite the mental struggle and a few wrist and back injuries, Lucas never seriously considered quitting the sport. Then in 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Hill’s was closed for two weeks, and when it reopened, Lucas didn’t go back. A few months later, she resumed training for a week, but found it extremely difficult—mentally as much as physically.

“My coach always used to say, ‘If you take one day off, it takes two days to come back,’” Lucas said. “So thinking about it, I was like, six months off, I’m gonna need a whole year. Everyone else seemed to be adapting to coming back to the gym so easily, and it was just so challenging for me.”

Eventually, Lucas had an honest conversation with her coaches, and they decided it was best for her to quit. Thus began her two-and-a-half-year hiatus. She tried other sports but found them “boring;” flag football was “unfulfilling,” cheer had “no goal,” and volleyball was nothing more than “a fun hobby.” What she was truly missing, she joked to her mother one day, was doing her favorite skill—a Maloney on bars.

For a while Lucas toyed with the idea of returning to gymnastics but wasn’t considering a comeback. She only wanted to try out a few of her old skills one more time. When she did return in the fall of 2022, though, her mindset had changed. She was back to aiming for a DI scholarship. 

Where would she do her training, though? Lucas believed her chances would be higher if she returned to train at Hill’s, but by then she and her family had moved back to Georgia and the memories of her time at the gym brought back old anxieties. “Would I lose interest in the sport again?” Lucas asked herself. “Would I feel burnt out?” 

The choice then fell closer to home. The head coach at Buckhead, Hardy Timmons, was Lucas’ older sister’s former coach from North Metro. Her endorsement convinced Lucas that his new gym would be a “safe environment,” and she started training there with him and Beaté Jones-Lewis, an Arizona State gymnastics alumna.

The comeback proved challenging. Lucas’ skills came back quickly, and within three months she was ready to compete. But her first few meets were rough. She failed to score over 36 in the all-around, leaving her frustrated.

“[The] first few competitions were not what I thought was going to happen because I was used to being so much better,” she said. “In the moment I expected so much more because I was doing so much more before I quit.”

Jones-Lewis was saddened by the fact that Lucas would get upset about both her performances and the fact that college coaches seemed to take no notice of her, instead offering her former Hill’s teammates full-rides. Jones-Lewis’ main challenge as a coach, she said, was to remind Lucas to focus only on herself and her journey and to trust her own process.

“From an adult perspective, you’re thinking obviously these girls are getting saluted because they’ve been in gymnastics [since childhood]; they didn’t quit…The coaches know that they’re there,” Jones-Lewis said. “The biggest challenge was to have her focus on herself.” 

Lucas’ proudest moment of her comeback year came at the Georgia state meet, when she finally put together a complete competition, scored a 36.750, and qualified to regionals. The result was not only nearly one point higher than her second best mark that season but was also a career high. Not even at Hill’s had she ever scored that high.

“I wasn’t necessarily surprised [by the result], but I was surprised by how emotional she got about it,” Jones-Lewis said of Lucas’ performance. “That was one of my favorite moments with her.”

That summer, Lucas went to train at Hill’s and performed at the club’s showcase, where she finally got to introduce herself to DI coaches. There, her recruiting journey effectively started. “Even though it didn’t give me an offer right away, it opened me to DI,” she said. “Without that showcase, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now.”

Back in Georgia that fall, Lucas was on the move again. At Buckhead she was the only level 10, and she realized that she needed to be surrounded by same-level athletes to find the motivation to pursue her goals. So she made the decision to train at Roswell Gymnastics with JP Monterroso.

Her new coach helped implement changes in her routines to make them more ready for college. The settings Lucas used on vault and bars, in particular, were still elite ones, and Monterroso suggested she change them to the ones more commonly used in college, helping her swing more freely on bars and twist more easily on vault. As a result, her competition scores improved dramatically. During the 2024 season, Lucas scored new career highs of 37.475 in the all-around, 9.600 on vault, and 9.675 on bars.

In November 2023, Monterroso also introduced her to more DI schools at his inaugural Phoenix Gymnastics training camp. Clemson, Temple, and Eastern Michigan, among others, were in attendance. While at the time Lucas didn’t hear back from Eastern Michigan, she got invited to visit Temple and later SEMO. Both schools offered her walk-on spots.

Lucas loved both colleges but was unsure about what her next move should be. On one hand, she had the concrete opportunity of competing in college for the next four years. On the other, she wasn’t getting the scholarship offer she’d worked so hard for. While she felt the pressure to pick a school, Monterroso kept telling her to wait.

“I told her, ‘Bri, you deserve more than just a walk-on spot. Your gymnastics is pretty good; you’re a really good gymnast,’” he said. “‘You have to be patient.’”

Lucas, on the contrary, was becoming increasingly impatient. “I’m kind of weighing my life out on a wish,” she kept thinking. Yet she continued to wait, until her graduation day in late May when Eastern Michigan assistant coach Sam Higgins called Monterroso. A transfer who was supposed to join the Eagles had decided to go elsewhere, and the team had a scholarship opening. The coaches wanted to meet with Lucas as soon as possible.

The hours following the initial phone call were surreal. Monterroso started calling Lucas repeatedly, but she was about to walk on stage and couldn’t pick up. He then began to call her mother, who was busy filming her daughter’s graduation. In the end, worried that something bad had happened, Lucas called Monterroso back. He told her to get in touch with Higgins. When she did, Higgins explained to her that Eastern Michigan had both a full-ride and a walk-on spot and that Lucas was up for consideration for both. Two days later, she and her mother landed in Michigan to meet with the team.

“It was so fast,” Lucas said. “I never got the chance to think, ‘Oh, this could be my full-ride.’”

In Ypsilanti, Lucas met with the current Eagle gymnasts and attended a practice session. She loved the team’s energy and the rising seniors, as well as the facilities and the campus. She could see herself spending four years there. Later that day, she and her mother joined the coaches for lunch. It was during the meal that, out of the blue, her mother asked them what it would take for her daughter to earn the scholarship. Lucas held her breath.

“​​I’m looking at my mom like, ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to ask that,’” she said. “But I’m looking at the coach, and she’s looking nervously at coach Sam, the assistant, and I was like, ‘Oh no, they’re gonna tell me that they gave up the spot, and I’m gonna get a walk on.’”

Then head coach Minasola took a deep breath and delivered the good news. Lucas made an impression the moment she stepped into the gym, she said. She showed a lot of positive energy in the practice session, which is expected from Eastern Michigan gymnasts, and had the level of gymnastics the team was looking for. If Lucas wanted the full-ride, it was hers.

“All I could think about in that moment before I started sobbing was each practice and each month that went by [when] I felt, especially this year, there was no point because I kept getting the same answers from colleges,” Lucas said. “I was so thankful because it felt like for the first time a coach had really seen the potential I could have and what I have to offer for the next four years.”

Soon afterward, Lucas also found out why she hadn’t immediately heard back from Eastern Michigan after the Phoenix Gymnastics training camp in November. Higgins explained, looking puzzled at Lucas’ own confusion, that they only had a walk-on opportunity at the time and were sure she would end up with a full-ride elsewhere. Lucas was relieved. For a long time, she thought Higgins wasn’t interested in her and had forgotten to tell her coach. Instead, it was just a question of bad timing.

So suddenly, after months of uncertainty, Lucas’ luck changed. It was worth the wait, she realized—worth listening to the adults around her when they told her to be patient; worth listening to her heart when it told her to leave the sport—and then to come back to it on her own terms. Thanks to them all, she was now “behind the steering wheel,” and was truly doing gymnastics for herself.

“Now my name’s on a banner at my gym, and I’m not looking at other people on the wall,” she said. “I’m looking at myself.” 

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Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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