Every year, a number of gymnasts make the transition from elite to collegiate gymnastics, and although the sport is technically the same, there’s a lot to get used to between the two worlds. Gymnasts move from an individualistic competitive atmosphere requiring super difficult routines and tons of sacrifices into a team environment that puts a focus on perfecting execution and having fun.
In 2016, there are a few dozen former elites joining the freshman class. Representing eight countries, some competed at the Olympics this summer while others never made their national teams, but all will bring the elite experience into their collegiate performances, and we’re excited to introduce them to you in what will be a three-part series showcasing each athlete’s strengths as they hope to become major contributors on their new teams.
Kyla Ross, UCLA
The indomitable Kyla had a lengthy elite stay, from her incredible debut in 2009 (she won the junior national title her first time out!) straight up until her retirement following the 2015 season, taking almost no time off. Even when her 2012 Olympic teammates took breaks following the Games, Kyla almost immediately returned to the gym. In addition to her Olympic gold, Kyla has five world medals (including all-around medals in 2013 and 2014), eight national titles, and pretty sweet bragging rights: she was the last gymnast to defeat Simone Biles in the all-around, back at a friendly meet in Germany in 2013. At UCLA, bars and beam will be obvious standout events, but while she struggled with endurance issues on floor in elite, the lower-difficulty NCAA routines should allow her to let her technical brilliance shine. She’s also working an Omelianchik on vault, which boasts a 10.0 start value and should cement her as a regular in the lineup.
Maddi Leydin, Arizona
A member of Australia’s worlds team in 2015 and a two-time national all-around medalist, Maddi was known in elite for her fantastic work on bars, where she’ll absolutely make an impression with the Gym Cats. Always a standout event for Maddi, at the elite level she competed big skills like a van Leeuwen and her phenomenal Markelov to Gienger combo, and while we’ll most likely see some downgrades and changes here, expect it to be her crowning glory. She said she’s most excited to get a new coaching perspective on this event as well as on beam at Arizona, but I’m personally most excited to see what she comes up with on floor. I’ve always loved her work there, and think with some tweaks from her elite routines, she could be a huge lineup threat.
Amelia Hundley, Florida
I’ve been impressed with Amelia since she first emerged onto the elite scene at age eleven. She was never the top kid and always kind of fell under club teammate Lexie Priessman’s shadow, but she ended up having a lengthy elite career that spanned two full quads, stretching from 2009 all the way to this summer’s Olympic Trials, where she placed ninth. Amelia worked her way up from weak difficulty and low rankings to a national team spot in only two years, and represented the United States internationally several times, including earning two individual medals at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Her bright, bubbly personality makes her a captivating performer on floor, and she also has a lot to offer the Gators with her big, clean skills on bars, though she’s actually pretty fairly balanced across all four events, so look for her to make an impression in the all-around pretty early on.
Isabella Amado, Boise State
One of two 2016 Olympians joining the rising Boise State program this season, Isabella — who is from Panama and represents the country internationally while training at Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach — will add tons of experience and consistency as the Broncos hope to fight for a spot at NCAA Championships. At the elite level, Isabella won world cup medals on all events but bars, including a beam gold in 2014. This was typically her strongest event, and where she will help the team the most, though she also has fantastic work on floor and generally clean work on vault. Isabella told us in September that while they will make a few modifications to her routines to bring them from an elite to an NCAA level, she will keep training the bigger skills on the side with the hopes of returning to elite competition someday.
Jordyn Pedersen, Georgia
Georgia is in a tight spot this year, losing its three best competitors to graduation after the 2016 season. Many of the upperclassmen will have to get used to their new roles in leading the team while the incoming freshmen need to immediately begin contributing. For Jordyn, who has four years of elite experience at the senior level for Canada, that could come on vault, where she has generally performed well, though she looked most fabulous at the team’s intrasquad with a piked Jaeger and stuck double front on bars, and will be bringing a full-in on floor to make her one to watch there as well. Jordyn was never a standout for Canada during her career, but already we’re seeing evidence of her potential to follow in Canadian teammate Brittany Rogers’ footsteps as a leader at this level.
Madison Copiak, Washington
Madison was one of the biggest surprises for the Canadian program this year, making up for lower difficulty with the strongest level of consistency, especially on bars and beam. After not making the country’s worlds teams in 2014 or 2015, Madison ended up in direct contention for the fifth and final spot on Canada’s Olympic team, a spot that ultimately went to Rose-Kaying Woo while Copiak served as alternate. The consistency she brought to her elite routines will really help her as she transitions to NCAA, and as a freshman, she should step up immediately as a major player on all four events for the Huskies, with her effortless Yurchenko 1.5 on vault likely her biggest contribution to a team that struggled a bit there in 2016.
Madison Kocian, UCLA
Another UCLA freshman who happens to be a U.S. Olympic gold medalist with a knack for killing it on the uneven bars…why not? Like her 2014 worlds teammate Kyla Ross, Madison will bring world-class talent to the Bruins’ bars rotation after winning world gold and Olympic silver on the apparatus in the last year, but also like Kyla, bars isn’t where I’m most excited to see her excel. If anything, as good as they’ll be on bars, we’ll see the most downgrades on this event because they did SO MUCH in elite, they could get away with a quarter of their elite routines at this level. Like Kyla, I’m most excited to see UCLA bring Madison out of her relatively reserved shell, which will most likely happen on floor.
Antonia Alicke, UIC
It’ll be a fast turnaround for Antonia, the German gymnast who gained a following after representing her country at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Antonia competed throughout the fall at several Bundesliga meets before concluding her elite career at the Toyota International competition a couple of weeks ago, and will travel to Chicago after the holidays to join the program just as they begin the 2017 season. As an elite, Antonia often struggled with hitting routines, but when she did hit, her long lines and elegant presence set her apart from many others, especially on floor. This should be a highlight for her at UIC, but they’ll be most excited about her tsuk full vault, which could help their vault rotation tremendously.
Felicia Hano, UCLA
We haven’t seen much from Felicia in the past two years after she suffered an injury while training her new tsuk vault at the U.S. Classic in 2015. After making a solid elite debut a year earlier, Felicia was hoping her two vaults would help her nab international team spots, but her career was sadly cut short. In her downtime, she stayed positive, working with a personal trainer even when she couldn’t do gymnastics, and sharing her progress with fans on social media. Now healthy again, she hopes to contribute her always awesome DTY to UCLA’s vault lineup, and we’re also expecting big things from her on floor, where her tumbling has always been pretty top notch. Her beam is also usable, and while bars were a struggle for her as an elite, she actually had a pretty solid routine there in her J.O. days, so expect her to at least provide backup even if she’s not a number one option.
Madison Desch, Alabama
Bama has huge potential to challenge for the NCAA national championship title this year, and even as a freshman coming into a solid lineup situation, Madison will be a huge part of their success. As an elite in the U.S. from 2010 up through the 2015 season, Madison was known for super-clean bar work and big skills on beam (she had a layout full there at one point). The junior national all-around silver medalist in 2012 and the silver Pan Ams all-around medalist at the Pan Am Games in 2015, Madison was forced to retire earlier than she’d hoped due to back problems. She’s had nearly a year to recover from her most recent injury, which should hopefully bring her happy and healthy into her debut season, so fingers crossed that nothing else goes wrong on that front. If completely healthy, Madison should be a pretty balanced all-arounder at the NCAA level, going up anywhere in a pinch if needed, though bars will likely be where she’s able to show off the most.
Mackenzie Slee, SEMO
With her 2016 Pac Rim teammates already off at college (Courtney McGregor at Boise State and Charlotte Sullivan at Iowa), Mackenzie was the sole senior elite competitor at New Zealand nationals this fall, and got to conclude her elite career with a fabulous gold medal sweep. Also a member of New Zealand’s 2014 Commonwealth Games and worlds teams, Mackenzie has a wealth of experience that will be invaluable during her time at SEMO. She also brings a Yurchenko 1.5 along with her, which will be huge for this program, and I love her work on beam, which she mounts with a solid front tuck (sometimes she even connects it to her jump series). Mackenzie is a big get for SEMO, and I’m excited to see her continue to make progress within the sport.
Sabrina Gill, Oregon State
Luck wasn’t always on Sabrina’s side during her elite career, with injuries the biggest hindrance to her progress, causing her to miss most of 2013, all of 2014, and then the second half of 2015. Sabrina began 2015 as the strongest bar worker in the country with titles at Elite Canada and Gymnix as well as the bronze medal behind two U.S. gymnasts at Jesolo, and she looked incredibly likely to earn a spot on the worlds team, but injury again kept her from fulfilling her potential. This year, she came back at nationals and Olympic trials looking promising, but ultimately not fitting into the decision. I’m sure she’ll have no problem breaking into the bars lineup at Oregon State with her floaty skills and lovely lines, but my biggest hope is that she’ll be able to leave the injuries behind her and have a happy, healthy NCAA career.
Article by Lauren Hopkins