As a blog that primarily covers elite gymnastics, but that fangirls with the rest of you over all of our NCAA favorites, my favorite time of year is when we’re first getting into the NCAA season and I get to combine the two worlds of the sport to share with you all of the elites you’ll be getting to know in the coming years as they make the transition to college.
In 2019, a total of 28 gymnasts who competed at the national level as elite gymnasts in their countries will begin careers as collegiate gymnasts (note that for the U.S., I consider gymnasts who qualified to nationals as having reached the “national level”). Of this group, 12 competed within the United States, eight come from Canada, two from Great Britain, two from Spain, and we also have representation from Iceland, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand. My favorite fun fact is that two programs both top the charts with three incoming elites, but while Florida will welcome three former U.S. gymnasts, Iowa State – which has recently been attracting tons of international gymnasts with girls from Peru and Spain already on the roster – is now home to another three freshmen elites from different countries, including Canada, Spain, and Great Britain!
We hope you enjoy this first look at some of our upcoming favorites, and we’ll have two more parts for you coming over the next few days!
NORAH FLATLEY, UCLA
I’m going to kick this off with one of my favorite elite gymnasts in the past decade, the queen of the beam herself. Though she’s been on the scene forever, believe it or not, Norah only competed at the elite level for a handful of meets before a series of injuries forced her to retire.
We first heard of Norah’s beam prowess back when she was a level 9 and known as an up-and-coming prodigy from Chow’s Gymnastics, causing people to think of her as The Next Shawn Johnson. After spending a season in level 10, where she easily became the national beam champion before qualifying elite in 2013, she competed at her first U.S. Championships at age 13, placing second on beam and fifth all-around to make the national team for the first time, and a year later she earned her first international assignments, winning the gold on beam at Jesolo and Pac Rims.
In 2014, Norah was a favorite for the junior U.S. all-around podium, ending up with the bronze medal, and she made one more international team – Jesolo in 2015, where she defended her beam title in addition to winning silver medals in the all-around and on bars – but that was it. Despite being an early fan favorite for a beam spot in Rio, a foot injury in 2015 caused her to miss nationals that year and then also the 2016 season, meaning her Olympic dreams, and her elite career, were over before they ever really even began.
Aside from a few training clips and a couple of videos of some level 10 performances in 2018 – Norah won the Iowa state bars title but couldn’t advance to regionals or nationals as she didn’t compete all four events – it’s been literally a million years since we’ve seen Norah compete, making her return to the sport the most anticipated comeback “since Jesus,” according to our news guru Jessica. With endless sass, gorgeous lines, a performance quality that knocks most floor workers out of the park, and some of the most beautiful gymnastics you’ll ever witness, Norah is going to be a superstar on a team of superstars at UCLA, and I literally can’t contain how excited I am to finally see her back on a major stage.
LINDSAY CHIA, YALE
I attend a bunch of the Canadian competitions, so I’m familiar with the non-national team girls there almost as much as I am with the non-national U.S. girls, and Lindsay is one of the ones who has stood out to me ever since I first saw her compete.
A high-performance gymnast from the novice levels all the way up to the senior group, Lindsay started out at the bottom of the field in 2013, but quickly climbed the ranks, qualifying to nationals five years in a row and consistently placing in the top ten at senior competitions, including finishing ninth all-around at Canadian Championships in 2017, where she also placed fifth on bars and beam.
I’ve always loved watching Lindsay on floor, but beam is Lindsay’s favorite event, where she displays a quiet confidence and level of focus that is hard for most gymnasts to achieve. She also showed some unique skills on this event, especially in her dance, including a switch leap to straddle 3/4 to tuck jump half and a tour jeté half, so hopefully we’ll continue to see some of that originality in her college routines.
Lindsay should be a huge asset to the Yale program, which rarely sees former elites, even from international programs. She actually reminds me a bit of current senior (and fellow former elite) Jessica Wang, and I hope she’ll learn a lot from her teammate in the next year so she can take over as a badass for this growing program.
RACHEL BAUMANN, GEORGIA
I’m three-for-three with killer beam gymnasts so far on this list. Like her sister Alyssa – a fellow former U.S. elite who currently competes for rival team Florida – Rachel is breathtaking on beam, winning the silver medal at J.O. nationals in 2016 before snagging the title a year later.
Rachel is also the 2016 J.O. national all-around champion in her age group, and though she didn’t compete much in 2018, she came close to sweeping the Senior A category at the WOGA Classic, taking the all-all-around title by nearly a full point in addition to winning vault, beam, and floor, so while beam is a standout for this beautiful gymnast, she should be able to contribute excellent routines anywhere she’s asked, something Georgia desperately needs in their roster.
Though she only competed elite for two seasons, qualifying in 2014 and then retiring after nationals in 2015, where she finished 24th, Rachel left her mark with some beautiful routines both on beam and on floor, events where she’s expected to shine for the GymDogs.
ANA PALACIOS, IOWA STATE
First, don’t confuse this Ana Palacios with the Ana Palacios who is currently competing internationally as an elite for Guatemala! This Ana Palacios hails from Barcelona in Spain, where she’s been a high-level international competitor and a member of the Spanish national team since the age of 12.
As a junior, Ana consistently got named to the top international squads, including European Championships in 2014, where her all-around performance helped her team to 12th place, and the European Youth Olympic Festival a year later, where she made the all-around final, placing 21st.
Ana became a senior elite in 2016, and she has competed regularly both at home and internationally until leaving for college this fall. Her strongest national result came in 2016, where she finished sixth in the senior all-around competition in addition to winning the silver medal on floor; she spent her 2017 season as a guest on the World Sporting Academy team at Italy’s Serie A meets; and in 2018 she won the silver medal on uneven bars at the International GymSport in Portugal, landing just behind 2016 Olympian Filipa Martins on the podium.
Competing alongside fellow former Spanish national team member Natalia Ros at Iowa State, Ana has the ability to make an impact in the bars lineup, and with time, I could see her adding depth on the other events as well.
ALEXIS VASQUEZ, DENVER
Between Norah and Alexis, this freshman intro is going to turn into an “I loved so many of Chow’s juniors, why didn’t they all go to the Olympics, life is unfair” rant, but guess what? I loved Alexis SO MUCH as an elite. It’s totally shocking that she’s one of my absolute must-watch newcomers this year, especially as she joins a fantastic up-and-coming Denver team.
When Alexis first committed to Denver, everyone was shocked because she was a huge name in elite at the time, a junior national team member, and she didn’t opt for a top-five program?! But Alexis made it super clear that Denver was the only school for her thanks to its academic excellence in addition to everything the gymnastics program had to offer.
After a standout performance at J.O. nationals when she was 12, winning bronze in the all-around and silver on floor, Alexis set her sights on elite, qualifying in 2013 and making the national team a year later, at the age of 14. The junior national beam champion in 2014, it looked like Alexis would be one to watch going into the 2016 Olympic Games, but she decided to retire just a few months later, moving back to California to focus on level 10 for the remainder of her pre-collegiate career.
Alexis didn’t end up getting a ton of J.O. experience after her elite career, but when she did compete, she looked fantastic, winning silver in the all-around in her division at Southern California states in 2017 and then snagging the bars, beam, and all-around titles at the San Diego Classic in 2018. Like so many on this list, Alexis is a natural on beam and this should be a top event for her, but she looked fantastic at the intrasquad in December and has the potential to contribute anywhere.
MADELINE McLELLAN, WASHINGTON
The University of Washington has been incredibly welcoming to gymnasts from neighboring Canada, with a total of three currently on the roster, including former elite Madeline and her fellow Calgary club teammates Madison Copiak, a junior, and Meaghan Ruttan, who also joins the GymDawgs this year.
As a junior, Madeline was an early standout, earning a spot in the international competition at Gymnix in 2014 where she placed 21st in a field that also included several of the world’s top seniors. The following year, she finished sixth in the all-around at Canadian Championships, putting up the third-best score of the meet on beam, and she continued at the elite level into her senior career, finishing 14th all-around and sixth on floor at nationals in 2017.
Unfortunately, an ACL injury in 2018 kept her from competing for her final year on the Canadian circuit, and it may hinder her from contributing right off the bat for Washington, but her solid FTYs on vault and excellent dance ability on floor could eventually see her regularly making lineups on both.
ANNA-MARIA KANYAI, BOWLING GREEN
I think I actually screamed when I found out Anna-Maria would be at Bowling Green this season. I love Bowling Green because of how welcoming they are to gymnasts from all around the world, and so seeing that they yet again attracted a gymnast who has been such a leading force for her national team over the years makes me so happy and I can’t wait to see how this works out.
Since making her senior debut in 2014, Anna-Maria has made pretty much every major international squad, including the European Championships teams in 2014, 2015, and 2016 as well as the worlds team in 2014, though an injury in 2015 kept her from being able to attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games.
After dealing with knee injuries throughout her elite career, Anna-Maria has made bars and beam a focus, winning the Czech national titles on these events in 2016, and last summer, after an extended absence, she was able to return to competition on just bars, placing fifth at nationals with the highest difficulty in the field, though a fall kept her from claiming the title.
Another injury may prevent us from seeing Anna-Maria debut with BGSU at the start of this season, but when she does get the chance to compete, look for her to make an impact on bars especially. Anna-Maria has a ton of majorly impressive skills on this event, like a Weiler half, shaposh half, and Hindorff, and her handstands are always on point. I can’t wait to see her performing NCAA routines and hope she’s able to get healthy in college so we can see her back on her other events as well.
SYDNEY JOHNSON-SCHARPF, FLORIDA
A fan favorite from one of her first level 10 meets at the age of 12 thanks to a performance ability most gymnasts double her age could only ever dream of possessing, Sydney’s collegiate career has been long awaited, with her floor routine at Florida one of the routines I’m looking forward to most this year.
At the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2013, where Sydney placed second on beam and 23rd overall, it was clear we were seeing a star in the making, so it was no surprise that we saw her go on to qualify elite later that year. After a few years competing at the national level in the United States, Sydney earned a spot on the junior national team in 2015 and competed as a senior at Jesolo a year later, though a knee injury unfortunately sidelined her going into the domestic season in the summer of 2016, keeping her from taking part in the Rio selection process.
Sydney returned to elite for a final year in 2017, winning vault and floor at the Reykjavik International Games in Iceland, where she also finished third all-around behind Olympians Eythora Thorsdottir and Daria Spiridonova, and though an illness kept her from training at a high level of difficulty, she proved to be a true queen by petitioning to nationals and debuting not one but two vastly different floor routines, ending her elite career in exactly the way we could have hoped for the girl known for her flair for the fabulous.
In 2018, Sydney competed at four level 10 invitationals, winning three all-around and nine event titles between them, and nearly sweeping her division at the Kurt Thomas Invitational, where she was first everywhere but bars, winning the silver medal on that event. A member of a fantastic freshman class in a program where lineups are tough to make, Sydney still stands out as a top choice for several, but floor is absolutely where she’ll shine.
MADDIE STRAKER, UTAH STATE
While many gymnasts begin elite careers from a young age, Maddie’s elite debut didn’t come until she was 16, which is when she qualified to her first Elite Canada meet after a super successful level 10 career.
Maddie made it to nationals that year, finishing 16th all-around and fifth on vault, but it was when she returned a year later in 2018 that she really began to stand out, finishing 11th at Elite Canada with an excellent performance on floor, and then placing 12th all-around at nationals to wrap up her career on a high note by also helping Team Ontario capture the team title.
Vault and floor are where Maddie has her biggest potential as a collegiate gymnast. As an elite, she was always clean and got tons of air on her FTY, and on floor, she boasted a double layout, double pike, and front layout to front full.
Though her beam didn’t really score super well in elite, some of her skills there were fabulous, including a layout series, front toss, and a jump series into a layout stepout, so I’m excited to see how USU works with her on that event, where she has the potential to be a more than viable option.
Article by Lauren Hopkins