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.
Going into the 2018 season, there are a few dozen gymnasts with elite-level experience joining the freshman class. Representing 23 schools and 12 countries, some have been to worlds and the Olympics while others never made their national teams, but all will bring that experience into their collegiate performances, and we’re excited to introduce them to you in what will be a four-part series showcasing each athlete’s strengths as they hope to become major contributors on their new teams.
ALYSSA BAUMANN, FLORIDA
A former WOGA gymnast, Alyssa is one of the most exciting elite prospects coming to NCAA this season, beginning her career at the age of 11 but really beginning to show promise once she became a senior. In 2014, her first year at the senior level, Alyssa was named to the worlds team that traveled to Nanning, where she competed all events but bars in qualifications and qualified 14th out of 216 gymnasts on beam.
Alyssa followed up her worlds performance with silver medals on beam at Jesolo and U.S. nationals in 2015 and then at the U.S Classic in 2016, where she also won the bronze all-around medal. Finishing seventh all-around at nationals, she was hoping to challenge for an Olympic team or alternate spot looking forward to Rio, but an elbow injury sadly took her out of contention, and she took a year away from gym to recover before entering her freshman year with the Gators.
Beam is where she’ll most obviously make an impact at Florida, but I’ve always been in love with her floor, and am excited to see how her classic, elegant, dramatic style is interpreted at the collegiate level.
HÉLODY CYRENNE, BYU
A member of Canada’s national team from 2014-2016, Hélody trained with the Woo sisters at Gym-Richelieu just outside of Montréal. In 2015, she helped Québec win team gold at the Canada Games, where she also won the bronze medal on floor, and she also won two Gymnix medals on vault in her senior career, including the gold in 2015.
The Canadian federation sent Hélody on several international assignments, including the Mexican Open, Jesolo, Toyota International, and a couple of world cups and challenge cups, and in 2016 she placed 11th at nationals, missing out on an Olympic trials spot by just a few tenths.
Hélody is most likely to help the team on vault and floor, though as an elite she was generally a competent all-arounder and I could see her contributing on all four events with watered-down routines. She generally competed a Yurchenko full and a handspring front pike at the elite level, neither of which is out of a 10.0 start value in NCAA, but she gets them around well enough to put up big scores either way.
KAILEY GILLINGS, ARKANSAS
Kailey only spent one season as an elite competitor, qualifying in 2014 after moving to Stars Gymnastics Training Center in Houston. She competed at both the American Classic and the U.S. Classic that summer, finishing 22nd and 37th, respectively, missing out on nationals and then dropping back down to level 10 for the following season, where she placed sixth at J.O. nationals.
As an elite and as a level 10, the biggest thing that always stuck out with Kailey was how clean she was. She is a beautiful bar worker, with lovely stalder work, including a stalder half to Endo to Jaeger, a series that would be super unique at the college level, and she scored a 9.5 or better eight times in her final two seasons as a level 10 on this event, winning the bronze at J.O. nationals in 2016. This is definitely where she’ll help Arkansas the most, as it’s where the team tended to take the most of a hit compared to other top teams.
MEREDITH SYLVIA, AUBURN
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Meredith compete her Rulfova on beam. The Parkettes junior wasn’t one of the strongest at nationals in 2012, finishing 18th all-around after a couple of mistakes over the weekend of competition, but months earlier she had shown so much promise on beam and floor at the American Classic at the ranch, and in 2013 she was a huge surprise when she took the junior all-around title at the WOGA Classic, placing in the top three on all four events.
I was so excited to see what else she’d bring to the table, but unfortunately, that was the last time we saw Meredith, who was injured and missed the rest of the season before dropping back to level 10. She had a successful J.O. career early on, winning the all-around at regionals in 2014 and 2015 and performing well at nationals both years, though injuries held her back in 2016 and 2017, so it’s been a while since we’ve seen her at full strength. If anything, we should look forward to what she can do on beam and floor, and I think as she eases her way into lineups she’s someone who could eventually be an all-around standout for the Tigers.
MARISSA OAKLEY, GEORGIA
Poor Marissa never really got a chance to realize her full potential at the elite level, as a devastating knee injury in training directly leading up to her senior debut kept her out of competition for two seasons. It was kind of a surprise to see her return to competition this summer before entering her freshman year, and it was a successful outing for her, resulting in the bronze medal on bars at nationals.
Marissa, who trained at Phenom in Illinois before her family moved and she switched to Everest, always excelled on bars, with fabulous form and a Fabrichnova dismount, and I think she’ll be a big help here for a team that currently has a kind of lackluster bars lineup. She’s dealing with shoulder problems at the moment, but is expected to compete on all four events. Once she is at full health, she’s absolutely going to be a game-changer for this team.
NIA DENNIS, UCLA
Nia was a huge fan favorite as an elite competitor. A member of the U.S. national team from 2012-2016, Nia was the national vault and floor champion in her final season as a junior in 2014, also winning the silver in the all-around and bronze on bars. This was also a great year for her on the international scene, where she won the silver all-around medals at Jesolo and Pac Rims, and she was the U.S. Classic bars champion as well.
After missing out on the Pan Ams team in 2015 due to struggles with consistency at camp, Nia moved to Legacy Elite and finished ninth all-around in her first year at the senior level, but as she ramped up to challenge for an Olympic team spot the following year, Nia unfortunately ruptured her Achilles and was unable to get back on all events in time. She competed two strong bars sets at nationals in 2016, placing eighth, and then retired from elite to focus on preparation for college.
As a level 10 in the 2017 season, Nia won the all-around in all but two competitions, and had an otherwise stellar record, falling only once in her 32 routines, placing first on individual events 65% of the time, never placing below fifth in the regular season, and becoming the national all-around champion in the tough Senior F division at J.O. national championships.
Nia will be a STAR for UCLA. She has clean gymnastics, huge skills, solid consistency, and fun, entertaining, college-ready performances on floor. The Bruins have been a top team on paper in the past few years, but they’ve been unable to follow through, and I think Nia is the perfect antidote with her solid, dependable, powerful gymnastics.
ALMA KUC, CAL
Ignore the fall in this routine…it’s otherwise the best representation of what she can do on the event!
Born in Canada and raised in Argentina and Brazil before moving to California, where she trained at AOGC, Alma would spend summers in Poland as a child where her family convinced her to begin working with the Polish national team. Her strength on all four events led to an all-around spot on the 2014 worlds team in her first year as a senior, where she helped Poland qualify a full team to 2015 worlds, where she qualified 105th in the all-around.
In 2016 she was the Polish national silver medalist on bars while also winning silver medals in the all-around and on bars and floor at the Gym Festival Trnava in Slovakia. She made a final elite appearance on bars at Euros this year, hitting a strong piked Jaeger to score a 13.3, qualifying in 18th on that event. She has said in the past she’d like to keep training elite while in college, but for now her focus is on helping Cal get a full team back to nationals, where her bars especially will be a major help, though she has the skills and confidence to make an impact on all four.
SOFIA GONZALEZ, UCLA
Born and raised in Manila, Sofia moved to California from the Philippines in 2015 and began training at Gym-Max alongside her UCLA teammates Kyla Ross and Felicia Hano. A member of the national team for the Philippines, Sofia qualified 16th all-around at the Southeast Asian Games in 2015, helping her team to the bronze medal, and she also won balance beam gold at the Philippine National Games that year.
She excels on beam, and could fill a couple of UCLA’s lineup gaps there, showing excellent extension on her flight elements and leaps, solid and fluid connections between skills, and clean, high-valued elements that will make it easy for her to impress NCAA judges. She also has a great style and solid tumbling on floor, and I think she could stand out even on UCLA’s squad of seasoned performers.
EMILY MUHLENHAUPT, BOISE STATE
Emily had a quick ride from level 9 in 2012 to qualifying elite a year later. She competed at the U.S. Classic in 2013, and was hoping to qualify to nationals in 2014, but an injury shortly before classics left her unable to compete there, and she later tweeted that she was going to have to give up on her elite dreams because of it.
Originally committed to Utah, Muhlenhaupt changed her commitment to Boise State in 2015 after missing out on J.O. nationals that season. Another injury in 2016 continued to hold her back, and she’s been training and competing mostly bars and beam since then, with bars an especially consistent event for her, though she shows nice style on beam as well and can score well when she hits. Emily will definitely add depth to both events for the Broncos, who missed out on a nationals berth by half a point in 2017 and will be hungry for revenge with a super strong team this year.
BAILIE KEY, ALABAMA
With so many big name former elites stepping into the NCAA spotlight this year, Bailie is probably one of the most-anticipated names on the list after dominating as one of the top juniors in the world last quad. At 12, Bailie — a Texas Dreams protégée who seemed like the second coming of Kim Zmeskal herself — finished ninth all-around at her first U.S. nationals, and she made her international debut about six months later, winning all-around bronze as well as the silver medals on vault and floor at Jesolo.
That summer she was the national bronze medalist on vault, beam, and floor, while also placing fourth all-around, a huge accomplishment in a field where most juniors were getting ready to begin their senior careers. She came into 2013 with tons of experience, winning the all-around, vault, beam, and floor gold at Jesolo one weekend and then sweeping all junior golds at a friendly meet in Germany the next, her scores matching and sometimes even exceeding those we saw from the top seniors.
She was the U.S. classic and national all-around champion that summer, swept the competition at the International Junior competition in Japan and won the all-around gold at the Junior Mexican Cup in Acapulco that fall, and she then won the gold all-around titles at Jesolo and Pac Rims in 2014, also winning the gold or silver medals on every single event at both meets. She dominated during this time and seemed practically unbeatable.
It looked like Bailie was gearing up to sweep junior nationals that summer, but an injury took her out of competition, and then a growth spurt hindered her from being able to come back easily. In her senior debut, she won the silver all-around and bars medals in Jesolo, and then also became bronze medalist on bars and floor at classics and again on bars at nationals that summer, but despite her high scores, she wasn’t selected for the worlds team that year and missed all of the 2016 season due to injury and growth-related problems, retiring without ever getting a shot at the Olympic team she had only a couple of years previously seemed likely to make.
We haven’t seen Bailie in competition in over two years, and in a recent snapchat of potential Bama lineups, Bailie was noticeably absent. If she’s healthy, she has the technique and skills to get her to 9.9 or higher on any event, but I can see them taking it slow with her and easing her into the lineups here and there rather than pushing her to be an all-around star straight off the bat. I hope the transition goes smoothly and that she finally gets back into her groove as a competitor, but with so much time off it’ll be hard to say what she can do until we actually see her do it.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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