The 2018 NCAA Elites — Part Four

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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.

SARA KING, SPRINGFIELD

Yes, a D3 team has a former elite gymnast this season! Sara, whose mom is originally from Slovenia, grew up as a gymnast in New Jersey but when visiting her mom’s family one summer, they convinced her that she could compete at the elite level in Slovenia and so that was that, and she made the move to Europe.

Sara lived and trained in Maribor for several years, and represented the country as an elite gymnast beginning as a junior. Some of her highlights at the elite level included EYOF back in 2013, sixth all-around and fourth in the vault, bars, and beam finals at this summer’s Maccabiah Games, and representing her country at the Universiade this summer, where Slovenia placed 12th.

Though she didn’t spend much time in J.O., Sara is roughly the equivalent of a level 9, and adds some big skills, style, and experience to D3 Springfield, including a tsuk back pike and a handspring front tuck on vault, a layout 1½ dismount on bars, lovely presentation on beam (her press handstand mount is to die for and she has great extension on leaps), and clean, solid tumbling on floor.

ABIGAIL MATTHEWS, OKLAHOMA

This Mary Lee Tracy-trained former CGA elite has been a long-anticipated Oklahoma commit. Abigail spent three years as a level 10 before earning her elite scores in 2014, placing 18th at the American Classic and then 34th at the U.S. Classic. Though she was invited to the national team camp later that year, Abigail dealt with injury and ended up dropping back to level 10 after the 2015 season.

She was sixth on bars at J.O. nationals in 2016 and fifth on the event this year, with a collection of six bars titles throughout her final two years in J.O. On this event, Abigail has exquisite, long lines, a beautiful toe point, and an aggressive swing that could make her a standout for the Sooners.

She’s also lovely to watch on beam and floor, and though her scores haven’t been as high there, some attention from KJ Kindler could turn her into another Alex Marks or Natalie Brown, who combine simpler but clean skills with breathtaking choreo.

LEXY RAMLER, MINNESOTA

Lexy had the kind of elite career that wasn’t flashy, with no national team berths or international assignments, but she was a mainstay in the women’s program for four seasons, qualifying at 14 and instantly catching everyone’s attention with her toe full to Bhardwaj on bars.

A two-time U.S. Championships qualifier, placing 14th in 2016 to just miss out on an Olympic Trials spot, Lexy dropped back to level 10 for the 2017 season, winning four all-around and 11 event golds in her six meets, including the Region 4 all-around, bars, and beam titles before capturing the beam title at J.O. nationals in May, where she finished seventh overall.

With the Gophers struggling a bit in the past few seasons, Lexy is coming in as a potential game-changer for the program, someone who can use her elite experience and effortless skills to add big scores on every single event.

SYDNEY TOWNSEND, MICHIGAN

A member of Canada’s 2015 world championships team at just 15 years old, Sydney contributed scores on vault and floor to help her country earn an automatic berth to the Rio Olympic Games while also helping the team to a sixth-place finish in finals, Canada’s best in history.

Once one of Canada’s top juniors, Sydney spent five years on the national team after debuting at the elite level in 2011. In 2014, Sydney was the junior national bronze medalist on beam, earning her country’s sole spot at the Youth Olympic Games that summer, where she finished 12th all-around and seventh in the vault and floor finals, and she also helped her team to the gold at Junior Pan Ams that year.

Though her later years in the sport were hampered by injury, Sydney always showed tons of power, especially on her near-perfect Yurchenko 1½, which always brought in huge scores thanks to her clean form, massive air, and excellent rotation. She’ll keep her 1½ at Michigan, where she’ll be one of three gymnasts with a start value out of a 10, pretty much always ensuring her a spot in the lineup, with floor also where she’s likely to earn a spot thanks to her big and clean tumbling.

JAZMYN FOBERG, FLORIDA

Jazzy had one of the greatest elite stories in U.S. history, going from missing out on qualifying to nationals in 2013 to winning the junior title a year later. Despite going up against the best juniors in the country in 2014, Nia Dennis and Norah Flatley, Jazzy was able to hit all eight routines over the two-day competition, standing out ahead of the other two when they struggled with falls.

She followed up her impressive win finishing second to MG Elite teammate Laurie Hernandez in 2015, also winning the silver medals on vault, bars, and beam, and she earned two international assignments that same year, winning the Jesolo vault title while also playing second-in-command to Laurie at the Junior Japan International, which also came with the bronze medals on vault and beam. Unfortunately, while Jazzy attempted to be in contention for the Olympics in 2016, an injury limited her from being at full strength and she finished her elite career at the U.S. Classic in June.

This was the last time we saw Jazzy compete, so how she’ll do as a Gator is kind of a mystery. At full strength, she proved that consistency and solid skills on all four events are her strong suit, and that’s exactly what gymnasts need to thrive in collegiate gymnastics, but with injuries and a growth spurt since her junior glory days, we’re looking forward to see how she’s changed as a gymnast while also hoping that old reliability is still her strong point.

RACHAEL FLAM, STANFORD

In a huge Stanford freshman class, Rachael is probably THE one to watch. In fact, she could be one of the biggest freshman standouts of the year, and would be my early pick to battle Nia Dennis for the PAC 12 Freshman of the Year.

Though Rachael was an elite at one point, qualifying in 2014 and placing 30th at nationals before dropping back to level 10, J.O. was where she absolutely dominated. In her three seasons following her elite career, Rachael won 16 all-around and 43 event titles, scoring a 9.8 or better for every vault in the nine meets of her 2017 season (including a perfect 10 at the WOGA Classic) and becoming the national champion on vault, floor, and in the all-around in the Senior E division this May.

With a powerful and near-perfect Yurchenko half-on front and tremendous tumbling with a double arabian, front pike through to double pike, and double pike on floor, Rachael is a literal gift to Stanford, which has struggled on both events in recent seasons.

AVA VERDEFLOR, PENN STATE

Born in the Philippines, Ava moved to the U.S. when she was a child and trained at WOGA, though opted to represent the Philippines internationally.

In 2014, Ava made her elite debut, placing 12th at the Junior Asian Championships to qualify a spot at the Youth Olympic Games where she finished 11th all-around and sixth in the bars final. Continuing her career as a senior, Ava helped her team at the 2015 Southeast Asian Games — which also included former WOGA teammate Lizzy Leduc and current UCLA freshman Sofia Gonzalez — while also earning the silver medal on bars, and she hoped to qualify to the Rio Olympic Games at worlds later that year, but ended up narrowly missing the cut.

We haven’t seen Ava compete since worlds that year, but she was always quite talented on bars at both the elite and J.O. levels, winning several titles in her J.O. career, including the Texas state title with a 9.8 in 2015. This will be her biggest contribution at Penn State, but I could see her eventually being a standout all-arounder for the team, and she’s also a beautiful performer on floor, with great expression and artistry.

BRIDGET DEAN, LSU

Bridget’s time in elite was short-lived, with her first appearance at the U.S. Classic when she was just 11. She placed 30th there, missing out on nationals, and then dropped back to level 10 for a few seasons, winning a number of invitationals and placing tenth at the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2013 before trying her hand at elite once more, qualifying to nationals this time and competing just on bars.

Since again moving back to level 10, Bridget, who trained at Orlando Metro, has done well on all four events and finished eighth all-around at J.O. nationals in 2015. Injuries have kind of plagued her entire career, though, so we haven’t seen her compete in quite some time and with LSU’s lineups nearly impossible to make, it’s hard to say where she’ll fit in right off the bat, though my best guess is with some exhibition routines on bars.

ANNE KUHM, ARIZONA STATE

The only non-freshman on the list of elite newcomers this year, Anne — most recently a member of France’s worlds team in 2015 who also competed on all four events at the Olympic test event to help the team qualify to the Olympic Games — is one of my favorite recruits this season and will add a breath of fresh air to the rising ASU program.

Anne had a legendary elite career for France, spanning ten years during which she was a two-time national champion (winning the junior all-around title in 2011 and the senior title the following year) and earned a berth on the 2012 Olympic team where, at age 15, she helped her team to 11th place and was a reserve for the all-around final.

Continuing her career into the next quad, Anne was limited by injuries in 2013 and 2014, but returned strong in 2015, competing at the European Games before going on to make the worlds team, and in 2016 she put up a strong bid for the Olympic team with her performance at the test event and with the national bronze all-around medal that summer, but she was just shy of getting a spot in Rio, serving as the alternate instead.

Anne is entering ASU as a junior, transferring to the program for two years after beginning her university studies in France. She is all about style and presentation, with beam and floor where she’ll absolutely become a fan favorite for the Sun Devils, and she’s tidy and consistent with huge skills on bars as well, adding tremendous depth and big scores to this lineup with her Jaeger and double layout. She’s been killing it in training and was remarkable at the intrasquad meet. Anne is going to be a big deal for this program, and I’m so excited to watch.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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