The International Elite Freshmen in NCAA

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Amelie Morgan

With the 2022 NCAA gymnastics season right around the corner – assuming Omicron doesn’t shut it all down! – I wanted to take a look at all of the freshmen who have competed at the elite level as part of non-U.S. programs throughout the world.

Like most years, Canada and Great Britain have the largest amount of incoming gymnasts, but there’s a ton of variety this season, with 28 gymnasts representing a total of 16 countries represented at 17 schools. Many of the gymnasts were those who trained in the United States (or Canada, in one case) but had international ties and earned opportunities to represent their adopted countries on the international stage, but there are also a number of athletes coming from overseas, including several Olympians.

ARMENIA

After seeing Houry Gebeshian become the first WAG athlete to represent Armenia at the Olympic Games in 2016, Anahit Assadourian was inspired to give it a try. In 2017, as a level 9 at Golden State Gymnastics, Assadourian got in touch with Gebeshian, who helped her prepare for international competition, including figuring out the code of points and putting together routines that would work at this level.

Assadourian made her international debut at EYOF in 2017, where she finished last in the all-around, but she didn’t let that deter her. She was able to increase her score by more than 3 points at the following year’s junior European Championships, and she made her worlds debut as a first-year senior in 2019. Though she missed out on qualifying to Tokyo, she was proud of her journey, and went on to finish up her level 10 career before heading to Pitt.

AUSTRALIA

Shannon Farrell was a national-level competitor in Australia from 2015 through 2019 before deciding to come to the U.S. for college. She finished 7th in her final season as a junior in 2016, her best all-around rank as a senior was 11th in 2018, and she also won the silver medal on beam behind Georgia-Rose Brown in 2017.

Farrell was supposed to make her freshman debut at SCSU in the 2021 season, but with the season canceled due to COVID, she didn’t get the chance to compete and made the decision to continue her college experience at Alaska, where she’s technically a sophomore, but will compete as a freshman.

BELGIUM

Once one of the top juniors in Belgium, Margo van Linden is coming to Western Michigan with tons of international experience, including the FIT Challenge in 2017 as a member of the junior Belgian team where she finished 28th. Though she wasn’t part of the Belgian national team in the later stages of her career, van Linden also gained tons of experience with her gym, De Gympies, including the WOGA Classic in both 2018 and 2019, making her senior debut with a 10th-place finish at the latter.

Van Linden’s last international elite-level meet was her gym’s annual Gymnova Cup in 2019, where she won bronze in the all-around as well as the title on bars, typically her strongest event and where she’ll be hoping to make her biggest impact this season.

CANADA

The biggest recruits out of Canada this season were undoubtedly Brooklyn Moors and Ana Padurariu, both of whom signed with UCLA. The pair were teammates at world championships in both 2018 and 2019, helping Canada to its best team ranking in history with a fourth-place finish in 2018, the same year Padurariu won silver on beam. A number of injuries kept Padurariu from being able to push through an extra year to the Tokyo Olympic Games, but Moors made it and was the only member to contribute scores to the team total on all four events in qualifications in addition to making the all-around final, where she finished 16th.

Another top recruit is Moors’ club and national teammate Emma Spence, who started out an underdog in 2016 and 2017, but she quickly rose to win silver in the all-around as a junior in both 2017 and 2018, and she was Canada’s pick to compete at the Youth Olympic Games in 2018, where she won the bronze on vault. As a senior, Spence won bronze on beam at a challenge cup in 2019 and she was a non-traveling alternate for the Olympic team this summer, and she should bring all-around strength and consistency to Nebraska this year.

Other freshmen from Canada include Montana Fairbairn and Emily Walker at Alaska, Quinn Skrupa at Central Michigan, Jordyn Ewing at Pittsburgh, and Kiera Wai at Illinois. All five have tons of national-level experience, with Skrupa most notable as the junior national bronze all-around medalist in 2017 and 2018. I’ve always been impressed by Walker’s skill level, Wai has often been a favorite of mine on floor in terms of her performance and style, Ewing is powerful with both her tumbling and her vaults (I’ve also seen her use a good variety of vault families over the years), and while Fairbairn hasn’t competed at the elite level since 2018, she moved on to a strong level 10 career, winning gold on floor at Canada’s Winter Games in 2019.

ECUADOR

A WOGA gymnast from the start of her competitive career, Genesis Gibson – whose mother is from Ecuador, making her a dual citizen – gave international elite a try when she reached level 10 in 2018. After finishing first at a national selection meet early that year, Genesis was named to compete at the Pacific Rim Championships, Junior Pan American Championships, and South American Junior Championships, where she qualified to the beam final.

An injury prevented Gibson from competing in her first senior season in 2019, and though she competed level 10 a couple of times in 2020, COVID ultimately shut down both her level 10 and elite seasons. I’m excited to see what she’ll be able to bring to Nebraska, especially on bars.

GEORGIA

Lali Dekanoidze was born in the Republic of Georgia, where her mother and coach, Sofia Managadze, was a member of the national team. After moving to the United States, Dekanoidze started gymnastics at Southeastern in North Carolina, and she reached level 10 at age 12. In 2017, the head coach of Georgia’s national team nominated her to compete at the European Youth Olympic Festival after reviewing videos of the 14-year-old, which he found super impressive.

Dekanoidze had an excellent competition in Györ, finishing 17th in qualifications to make the all-around final, where she ended up in 20th place. This would sadly be Dekanoidze’s only elite competition, but she went on to have an incredibly successful J.O. career, making nationals every year from 2017 through 2021 and winning the all-around and bars titles in her final season. She should be a star for North Carolina, and I secretly need her to try elite again during or after college.

GREAT BRITAIN

Amelie Morgan, a member of the bronze medal-winning team at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer and a three-time medalist at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, will join U.S. Olympic team member Grace McCallum and alternate Kara Eaker at Utah this winter, which should make for a pretty big national threat. An elite gymnast since 2015, Morgan is consistent and stylish with a strong skillset across the board,

Morgan’s club teammate Phoebe Jakubczyk is also headed to the Pac 12 as she starts her freshman year at Oregon State. Jakubczyk is an especially good floor worker, but like Morgan, she should be able to contribute on all four events. As a senior, Jakubczyk won a national silver medal on vault and a silver on bars at a challenge cup, and she also participated in her country’s Olympic trials this week in addition to earning a spot at Euros.

The other Brits in NCAA this year – Hallie Copperwheat (Pittsburgh) and Mia Scott (Illinois) – weren’t as well-known, but were top members of the English squad, which also gave them some international opportunities. Copperwheat competed at Jesolo in 2018, while Scott was sent to the Olympic Hopes Cup that year, and both were members of Team England at the Leverkusen Cup in 2019, where they won silver in the team competition.

GUATEMALA

Born and raised in Guatemala, Marcela Bonifasi got her start in the sport at her country’s national training center when she was seven years old. She moved to the U.S. to begin training at Roswell Gymnastics in Georgia as she made the decision to compete elite in 2017. She made her international debut at the Central American Sports Festival that same year, and also competed at Pan Ams in 2018, as well as the FIT Challenge and world championships in 2019.

Going from Guatemala to Alaska is quite the leap, but I’m excited to see what she’ll be able to contribute for the Seawolves. Her beam has been historically quite strong and should be her best asset as she moves into the collegiate environment.

HUNGARY

Ilka Juk has long been a fan favorite since debuting as a junior back in 2015, known for the style and flair she brings to her unique skills and connections, especially on beam and floor. Juk is from Canada, and spent the start of her career as a member of the Canadian junior team, but in 2019 she made the decision to move to Hungary, where she lived and trained with the goal of making the worlds team. She ended up sixth all-around at nationals, but an injury held her back from being able to contribute at her highest level.

Unfortunately, COVID shut down Juk’s dreams to stay in Hungary, though she returned this fall to make an appearance at the Hungarian Grand Prix and then national championships, getting her first elite-level competitive experience since the start of the pandemic as she prepped to make her NCAA debut with the newest program on the block, LIU.

ITALY

One a super promising young athlete for Italy, Sydney Saturnino ended up cutting her career short due to injuries before reaching the senior level. As a junior, Saturnino made several Jesolo appearances, and in 2017, she was named to the FIT Challenge team, winning the all-around title and helping the Italian team to gold as well. She attempted a comeback in 2019, but dropped the sport again pretty quickly until she got an opportunity to compete in college.

After no competitions in four years, Saturnino returned to help GAL Lissone in Italy’s Serie A2 league in the spring of 2021, where she was consistently a standout on beam and floor. I’m hoping the more relaxed training environment in college will keep Saturnino healthy and able to enjoy her time at Iowa State, where she’ll join 10 other international athletes, including Olympians Marina Gonzalez of Spain and Ariana Orrego of Peru.

JAPAN

Denver freshman Momo Iwai was born in Japan, but moved to Texas at a young age and spent most of her career at Texas Dreams. Iwai reached level 10 in 2017, and two years later, she made a few attempts to qualify to senior elite, finishing first at the KPAC qualifier and second at the WCC meet, though coming about a point shy of the elite cutoff both times. Later that summer, Iwai spent two weeks training at Try Gymnastics in Japan, and helped the team on bars and beam at the junior national championships.

I was hoping we’d see more of Iwai in Japan, but I’m sure the pandemic made things challenging. With no competitive opportunities in 2020, Iwai returned to her level 10 program this year, finishing the season in seventh all-around at nationals. I was always most impressed with Iwai’s beam in her elite routines, and am excited to see more of her when she debuts with Denver in 2022.

LATVIA

When Elina Vihrova first stepped on the podium to compete as a junior at Euros in 2016, It was immediately recognizable that she would be one of Latvia’s best talents in a long time. She didn’t get much experience as a junior, but was consistently busy once she reached the senior level, making her worlds debut in 2018, sweeping Latvia’s national championships in 2019, making the all-around final at the European Games that summer, and then returning to worlds, where a rough beam performance held her from qualifying to the Olympics.

Vihrova committing to Penn State came as a massive yet incredibly exciting surprise. She kept competing elite in preparation for college, making three event finals at Euros in 2020 and both the all-around and beam finals at Euros this year, in addition to winning two challenge cup medals. I think she’ll be a huge standout at the NCAA level, and I’m also holding onto the hope that she’ll make another go at the Games.

MEXICO

Twins Anapaula and Jimena Gutierrez will join a talented international class at Stanford this year after competing as standouts on the Mexican national team in 2019. In 2017 after they both qualified to junior U.S. elite, they decided to attend nationals in Mexico, which Anapaula won while Jimena took the silver.

Anapaula won another junior title in 2018 and then the senior title in 2019, and both gymnasts earned spots on Mexico’s Pan Am Games team, while Anapaula was also named to compete at worlds (Jimena was the alternate). The twins balanced their international careers with their J.O. careers, with both reaching level 10 nationals in 2019, but they haven’t competed since, so it’ll be interesting to see how they look this season.

Another U.S. gymnast who trained with the Gutierrez twins at TIGAR until 2019, Carley Beeman, was also invited to compete at Mexico’s national championships in 2018, where she finished 14th as a junior. Beeman also attempted to qualify to U.S. elite a year earlier, but mostly focused on J.O., and she qualified to level 10 nationals this year, finishing 35th before heading to Oregon State.

PHILIPPINES

Corinne Bunagan of ENA Paramus in New Jersey spent her 2017 season double-teaming J.O. (she nearly swept the Region 7 titles that year before winning beam and taking silver in the all-around at nationals) and her first try at elite. Her dad is from the Philippines, and when she saw that it would be difficult to reach the top levels in the U.S., she looked into dual citizenship, got a passport, was invited to a national meet, and placed first in the country.

This led to a spot at Asian Games, where she finished 14th all-around, and at worlds, where bars and beam held her back from reaching an Olympic spot. She then returned to level 10, and qualified to nationals this year, where her best finish was 21st on bars. Next stop: Alabama!

SPAIN

Joining Italy’s Sydney Saturnino and a whole crew of fellow international standouts at Iowa State is 2020 Olympian Marina Gonzalez, who we first saw on the elite scene for Spain as a junior in 2015. She actually wasn’t one of the standout juniors, but really started coming into her own as she got older and gained experience. By 2019, she was one of Spain’s best, winning the all-around silver medal at nationals, and she became known for her excellent work on floor, winning a challenge cup title on this event before going on to compete at worlds, where Spain qualified a full team to the Olympics for the first time since 2004.

Gonzalez was one of the top contenders to make Spain’s Olympic squad this year, and in Tokyo, she competed all four events and contributed the team’s top score on floor in qualifications. I’m especially excited for the NCAA version of her floor work.

SWEDEN

Last but not least is Izabella Trejo, a California-based gymnast who reached level 10 in 2017, qualified to J.O. nationals later that year, and then began competing junior elite for Sweden in 2018. Her very first elite meet was an international one, the Nordic Championships in Denmark, where she surprised to win gold on vault. A week later, she won another vault title as well as the silver medals in the all-around and on floor at Swedish nationals, and she kicked off her senior career with a Euros appearance as well as the silver on floor at nationals.

Unfortunately, that was the last we saw of Trejo on the international stage, though she’s been training at Airborne for the past couple of years, and she should be an awesome standout on vault and floor at UC Davis.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

2 thoughts on “The International Elite Freshmen in NCAA

  1. Don’t forget Talia Folino of Australia, who is technically a freshman this year as she was not able to get cleared by the NCAA in time to attend LIU last year. She should have an immediate impact on all 4 events and with Juk should be the 1-2 punch the Sharks need to try and contend with making it into the top 36.
    It is unfortunate they lost several gymnasts from last year’s roster including Alisson Lapp, whose bars, beam, and floor will be missed. Emma Brown went back to Denver after taking a Covid year.

    LIU had a lot of bad luck last year, so hoping they can get some good luck this season.

    Like

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