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 our four-part series showcasing each athlete’s strengths as they hope to become major contributors on their new teams.
ARIANA ORREGO, IOWA STATE
One of my favorite Olympic stories in 2016 was seeing the Virginia club Excalibur show up to Rio with two Olympians competing for two different countries. Both athletes ended up moving on to NCAA afterwards, with Isabella Amado of Panama currently a sophomore at Boise State, while Ariana, who represented Peru in Rio, moved on to Iowa State this season. As an elite, Ariana was a strong and reliable competitor, making several international finals, including two world cup event finals and the 2015 Pan Am Games all-around final before she went on to win the vault and bars titles at last year’s South American Championships.
Ariana, who was Peru’s first Olympic WAG athlete and now has an international competition named after her in Lima, moved to the United States when she was 15 after showing promise as someone who could qualify for the Olympic Games. After making her dream come true, she continued training at Excalibur as a level 10 gymnast this year, becoming the Virginia state all-around, vault, and beam champion before also taking the beam title and finishing second all-around at regionals, though she didn’t compete at J.O. nationals (possibly due to her citizenship status).
Ariana is a huge addition to the Cyclones, and will likely have an impact on the team from the get-go. She has a gorgeous Yurchenko full and is clean in everything she does, with potential to contribute as a key competitor on all four events.
ANASTASIA WEBB, OKLAHOMA
Though she only had one season at the elite level under her belt, Anastasia, who trained at the Illinois Gymnastics Institute, caught our eye with her lovely floor routine back in 2014. She failed to qualify to nationals that year, partly because she sat her vault and received a zero, taking her out of contention, and an attempt to return as a senior in 2015 was cut short by an injury that took her out of the American Classic.
Her level 10 return was a fantastic one, though, leading to two top-eight finishes at J.O. nationals, a spot at the Nastia Liukin Cup this year, and two national titles, including floor in 2016 and vault this year. Vault is where she’ll be especially notable in college, with her solid roundoff half-on front pike another gift to the Sooners’ already stacked vault lineup, but she’s one of those girls who can contribute anywhere if needed, with big skills on bars, a clean and consistent beam set, and a floor routine that will score super well at this level.
ALONZA KLOPFER, ALABAMA
Another one with an elite career cut short by injury, Alonza, who trained at North Stars in New Jersey, only got to compete at a handful of elite meets before retiring and dropping back to level 10. She made an impression as a junior at the 2013 U.S. Classic, showing solid routines on every event but bars, where her difficulty seemed to be too much for her to handle, and her falls and mistakes there held her back from qualifying to nationals.
A return performance in the junior division at the 2014 WOGA Classic — where she placed seventh not far behind future Olympians Rebeca Andrade and Flavia Saraiva of Brazil and Amy Tinkler of Great Britain — showed improvements, but injury sadly took her out of competition for the next two years. When she returned as a level 10 in 2016, she looked to be on a mission, winning several titles at her few meets that year, including the national beam title. It’ll be hard to stand out in a star-studded freshman class, but beam will definitely be her best shot to break into a Bama lineup, with bars also a likely event.
MAYA WILLIAMS, ARIZONA STATE
The younger sister and 2015 worlds teammate of 2016 Olympian Toni-Ann Williams, Maya will now compete against Toni-Ann at a PAC 12 rival program, though the two plan on continuing to represent Jamaica together internationally. ASU is one of my favorite underdog programs, with coaching changes and excellent lineup additions making them a team to keep in mind as one that could rise up after a few years at the bottom of the PAC.
With six years of level 10 competition under her belt, Maya was never in a great place to qualify to nationals, mostly due to being limited to just a few events at a time (nationals qualifiers must compete the all-around). A walk-on for ASU, Maya isn’t likely to be making lineups right away, though she has potential to contribute solid, crowd-friendly routines on floor, and she’ll add invaluable depth to a program that has often struggled with fielding full lineups on each event.
TAYLOR LAWSON, STANFORD
Taylor was one of my favorite Parkettes juniors last quad, beginning her career with promising routines at the U.S. Classic in 2014, though she unfortunately had a meet-ending injury at nationals a few weeks later, landing her double tuck beam dismount on her head on the second day of competition. When she returned as a senior in 2015, she placed tenth at classics, but was slightly shy of the required qualifying score, low difficulty holding her back despite a solid day of competition.
The low difficulty but solid performances were more than welcome when she dropped back down to level 10, though. Taylor has had a stellar couple of seasons, ending with the bronze on floor at J.O. nationals in 2016 and then the silver this year, where she also placed tenth all-around. As one of seven freshmen in Stanford’s first season under head coach Tabitha Yim, Taylor has lineup potential on all four events, though floor is definitely where she’s the most polished and where Stanford has the biggest need.
VANASIA BRADLEY, FLORIDA
Every so often, a gymnast impresses so much in her first and only turn at the elite level that I end up getting questions about her for years to come. Vanasia, who placed 11th all-around in her first year as a junior elite back in 2013, was one of those gymnasts. Coming from Splitz Gymnastics in Michigan before following coach Justin Laury to Euro Stars, Vanasia had tons of talent and style, but injuries held her back, forcing her to sadly retire from elite competition before she could reach her full potential, like so many others on this list.
Vanasia was able to return to level 10 for her 2016 season, but her knee injuries continued to hold her back, with nonstop surgeries in the past four years, including one as recent as January. At full health, she’s capable of super clean work on every event, with vault and floor her standouts. Her Yurchenko full in 2016 was rocky on the landing, but still showed why she was so good there years ago, with her flight so pretty and floaty and strong. But at Florida, it’s hard to see where she’ll fit in, especially since she’s had almost zero competitive experience since 2013. For now, our best bet is probably hoping for some exhibition routines on events that won’t aggravate her knee.
NASHA MANITKUL-DAVIS, KENT STATE
Nasha, who trained at the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center in Indiana throughout her J.O. career, was the Level 9 Eastern bars champion in 2013 and also reached level 10 nationals in 2016. But before going off to college, Nasha was able to fulfill her dream of competing as an elite gymnast, spending part of her final year in high school helping Thailand at several international meets.
An injury at the Asian Championships in May kept Nasha from really contributing there, but her return at this summer’s Southeast Asian Games proved to be a big help to the team, which looked stronger than ever as they have begun focusing on putting together a top-caliber team in the years leading up to when they host the SEA Games in 2025. Nasha generally has solid scores on bars and floor, where she has been most consistent in the past couple of years, and she’s expected to help out Kent State on all four events this season.
ASHLEY FOSS, GEORGIA
Ashley, who trained at North Stars with fellow SEC freshman Alonza Klopfer (above), was someone I thought could be promising at the elite level, showing great potential as a junior with a 14th-place finish at nationals in 2012, her beam a standout both for its difficulty and solid execution. She finished third all-around at the American Classic a year later, qualifying to nationals again, but a dislocated kneecap forced her to withdraw halfway through, taking her out in 2014 as well.
Martha Karolyi invited Ashley to a few national team camps in late 2014 and early 2015, a year she kicked off by winning the gold in the all-around and on every event but vault at the Buckeye qualifier. But another injury left her unable to compete beyond the qualifier that season, and she ended up dropping back to level 10 in 2016, where she won multiple titles across a variety of invitationals before becoming the national beam champion.
Ashley missed her 2017 season, and her injury history is worrisome as she joins a depleted Georgia team just hoping to bounce back after a rough season under new management. She’s currently training bars, where she is most likely to be of immediate assistance, especially given the lack of depth on the event at the moment. Eventually, though, when she’s healthy, she could be a game-changer for Georgia pretty much everywhere but vault, which has typically been her weakest apparatus.
SYDNEY SOLOSKI, UTAH
I’ve been excited about Sydney since seeing her win the all-around gold and a handful of event medals in France and Belgium as she wrapped up her junior career in 2014. The Canadian elite, who trained at Calgary Gymnastics Centre, wasn’t one of the country’s top seniors, but she stood out as a solid competitor with great strength on beam and floor, winning the Elite Canada floor silver medal in 2015 and then medaling on both events at the Ljubljana World Challenge Cup a year later.
Sydney missed out on Olympic trials after mistakes on bars at Canadian Championships in 2016, but even this event is one she will easily be able to adapt at the collegiate level if needed. Beam and floor, though, are where she’ll be most valuable to the Utes, and she should make both lineups right away. The video I included above is my favorite beam set of hers, though not even close to the most recent. For something a little more current, check out her Ljubljana performance, for which she won bronze.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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