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!
SHALLON OLSEN, ALABAMA
I still remember the first time I heard about Shallon. She was only ten when she made her debut at Canadian Championships, where she got instant national team attention – and international assignments, winning gold on vault at Top Gym in her first year as an elite – thanks to her huge skills, including a DTY and a piked full-in on floor, skills she’s still competing now as a freshman at Bama.
It was clear even then that Shallon would be a huge deal, and all these years later, she is one of the most-decorated international gymnasts in Canada’s history. A vault finalist at the 2016 Olympic Games, Olsen is also a two-time world cup medalist, the 2018 Commonwealth Games champion on vault, and the 2018 world silver medalist on the same event, vaulting the same huge and confident DTY we’ve come to expect ever since she was the tiniest child.
Shallon is already a star performer at Bama, where she anchors the vault and floor lineups just a few weeks into her collegiate career and also competes a solid set on beam. She is also never injured, which seems impossible in this sport, but that’s a huge plus in college when the stress of competing week after week can be too much for many broken former elites.
With the 2020 Olympics still in sight for Shallon, she’ll be double-teaming elite and NCAA competition over the next couple of years, and with her continued strength as a top vaulter and floor worker in Canada, she’ll continue to be a lock for every major team, including Tokyo.
ABI SOLARI, CAL
A member of the British national squad from 2012–2017, Abi is one of several gymnasts from the Portishead-based club The Academy currently competing in NCAA.
She was a standout from the espoir level in Great Britain, and won several medals at the English and British Championships throughout her career, including bronze on vault at nationals in 2016, her first year at the senior level, and she wrapped up her elite career at last year’s national championships, where she finished 15th all-around and seventh on vault. Abi also competed internationally a couple of times in her career, helping her team to gold in addition to winning all-around silver at the Olympic Hopes Cup as a junior in 2014.
Abi, who will focus on just vault and floor in collegiate gymnastics, made her debut for the Golden Bears on vault and floor at the first meet of the season, looking solid on both with a handspring front pike half (she has also trained a handspring front tuck full at the college level), and then hitting all of her tumbling well enough on floor to get a 9.8.
Unfortunately, Abi was spotted in a boot a couple of weeks later, so it’s unclear how the rest of the season will look, but in the long run she’ll definitely be a standout in these lineups for Cal, and we hope she gets well soon!
LEAH CLAPPER, FLORIDA
Leah had the kind of elite career in the U.S. that I absolutely love seeing. Where most elites come up at 12 or 13 with the hopes of someday going to the Olympics, Leah, who trained at Gym America, waited until she was a bit older, though her focus was pretty much always on J.O. and getting a college scholarship.
After qualifying elite in 2015, Leah competed at the classic meets that year and in 2016, but was never quite close enough to make nationals, though a solid performance at the American Classic in 2017 was more than enough for her to earn a berth, and she made her nationals debut that summer, finishing 15th all-around before retiring and returning to J.O.
In addition to her elite experience, Leah is a four-time J.O. nationals competitor, finishing fifth on bars in 2015, fourth on floor and fifth on beam in 2016, and ninth all-around in 2018. She’s a more than capable athlete on all four events, and though it’s always hard to find a place in a stacked Florida lineup, the Gators can count on her to contribute absolutely anywhere.
So far this season, they’ve already called on her once to sub in on beam for the injured Alyssa Baumann, where she did a fantastic job to post a 9.875, and we look forward to seeing her step it up in the future to hopefully find a regular lineup spot eventually.
MEIXI SEMPLE, IOWA STATE
A regular on Canada’s elite scene from the time she won the novice all-around title, Meixi won bronze in the all-around at nationals in 2015, and she continued to stand out at the senior level, debuting at the Nadia Comaneci Invitational in 2016 where she nearly swept the competition, winning the all-around title as well as the gold medals on every event but bars, where she placed second.
A few weeks later, she went on to place fourth all-around at Gymnix, where she also won the title on beam ahead of her teammates Isabela Onyshko and Rose-Kaying Woo (both of whom went on to make the Olympic team later that year) as well as international stars like Nina Derwael of Belgium and Eythora Thorsdottir of the Netherlands, both of whom have since medaled on beam at Euros.
Unfortunately, Meixi was injured shortly after Gymnix, keeping her from competing at nationals and Olympic trials in 2016, and then limiting her to just a few events over the next couple of years. She was able to return to the all-around at Elite Canada in 2018, where she placed 13th to qualify for nationals, but sadly that would be it for the Ontario native at the elite level.
Meixi reached out to Iowa State in her senior year of high school, and was thrilled to be offered a spot on a team that is a haven for former international elites from all over the world. Beam was always my favorite event of hers at the elite level, and it’s where she’s planning on focusing in college. She’s competed the event twice so far, getting a 9.8 for a lovely routine at home this past weekend.
SOFIA IRIBARREN, ILLINOIS STATE
Sofia is one of a few Spanish gymnasts currently competing in NCAA, spending several years at the national level in addition to appearing as a regular in several leagues, like Bundesliga in Germany, Top 12 in France, and Serie A in Italy, helping several clubs over the years in addition to repping her own club, Pozuelo, in the Spanish League.
The best years in Sofia’s elite career came when she was a junior, with her career including several international assignments, like Top Gym in 2014, where she placed 12th on vault and bars. Before coming to the U.S. for college, Sofia competed at her final Spanish Championships last summer, placing 18th all-around.
Vault and bars were always where Sofia was at her strongest as an elite, always putting up super clean and solid routines, and so far it’s where she’s made an immediate impact at Illinois State. She doesn’t have the most difficult vaults (last time I saw her, she was doing a beautiful handspring front tuck), but her bars are very strong when she hits. So far this season she’s had a few falls on the event, but last week she got a 9.8 at home to place second, so hopefully she will continue to improve in her consistency there, and eventually, I hope we also get to see her debut on floor!
BAILEY FERRER, LSU
When Bailey debuted as a junior in 2014, there was a ton of hype around her as a kid who landed an Amanar at age 12 a year prior. She was one of the new juniors we were most excited about that summer, coming in off of a fourth-place finish at the Nastia Liukin Cup and then posting super promising vault and floor scores at the American and U.S. Classic meets that summer.
Bailey earned a nationals berth that first year, placing 26th all-around again with strong scores on vault and floor, and then she earned a spot at the national team camp that fall. Her meteoric rise saw her verbally commit to LSU the following spring when she was just 13, and it seemed like she was going to be unstoppable going forward in her elite career.
Unfortunately, an injury kept Bailey from competing at the U.S. Classic that summer, and she then missed the entire 2016 season, causing her to drop down to level 10. She moved from Orlando Metro to Brandy Johnson’s for the 2017 season, which ended with a third-place all-around finish at J.O. nationals, and then she trained with coach Ray Gnat – dad of LSU superstar and current student assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat – at Longwood for her final season, which saw her win 12 invitational, state, and regional titles.
Vault and floor continue to be Bailey’s strong suits, and she has competed both so far at LSU, but looks like she still needs a little fine-tuning to work her way into the lineups as a regular. On vault, she’s now competing a Yurchenko half-on front pike, and on floor she has a big arabian double front to open her routine, which is going to bring in big scores once she can get some control in her landings.
SEINA CHO, YALE
Seina, who trained at Omega with fellow freshman Shallon Olsen, is another Canadian gymnast with years and years of elite-level experience beginning from a very young age, and I was so excited to see her end up at Yale, where she’ll without a doubt make a difference.
At the elite level, Seina had her best national results as a junior, finishing ninth all-around in 2015. She also got a little bit of international experience, finishing sixth all-around at the WOGA Classic in 2016, her first year at the senior level. After missing out on qualifying to nationals in 2017, Seina began to focus on level 10, winning the provincial all-around title three years in a row in addition to finishing 8th all-around at J.O. nationals in 2017.
She’s currently recovering from shoulder surgery, which caused her to miss the 2018 season in Canada, so it might be a while before we see her crack some lineups, but once she does, she should be a fantastic addition to Yale’s already excellent bars lineup alongside fellow former Canadian elite freshman Lindsay Chia. Seina always had some big skills on bars at the elite level, and with some tidying up, she will absolutely be one to watch.
GRACE QUINN, CAL
A former Texas Dreams gymnast, Grace qualified to the elite level as a junior in 2013 and she looked like someone with huge promise for the future, finishing ninth all-around with her top event finishes coming on vault and floor.
She made return appearances at nationals in 2014 and 2015, again finishing ninth in her final season, and she also won bronze on vault at the U.S. Classic in 2015, but unfortunately that was it for Grace, who missed the next two full years of competition due to injuries.
Grace briefly returned to level 10 competition in 2018, competing on bars at the Texas Prime meet and then on vault at the Brestyan’s Invitational, where she competed an FTY but had a fall.
With this lack of competitive experience over the past four years, it’s hard to say how Grace is looking now and whether she’ll be able to find a spot in the lineups, at least this early on. We often see that some gymnasts who don’t end up contributing as freshmen actually end up learning a lot from the sidelines, coming back for later seasons to be standouts. Grace was spotted training bars in the fall, so hopefully we’ll see her at least get some exhibition spots in the coming weeks, though I really miss her strong performances on floor and would love to see her make a return there at some point.
LAUREN SMITH, GUSTAVUS
Though Lauren wasn’t an elite in New Zealand, she gets an honorable mention on this list simply because it’s always awesome to see an international gymnast in the NCAA ranks, especially in a D3 program.
Lauren’s best events are vault and floor, and though she hasn’t made lineups yet for the Gusties, this is where she is most likely to fit in eventually.
Article by Lauren Hopkins