Gymnastics wins back-to-back national championships


The Lindenwood gymnastics team poses on the podium after winning the national championship. Photo by Carly Fristoe

For the Lindenwood gymnastics team, the 2016 season ended much like a storybook. Saturday night at the Hyland Arena, they stood on top of the podium in their home arena as the USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Champions in front of a cheering section made up almost entirely of their own fans.

“I don’t know if it’s real yet,” Lindenwood head coach Jen Kesler said. “It is amazing and spectacular.”

It is the second consecutive championship for the team, and just like last year, they edged out the University of Bridgeport for the title. This year, they won by just .075 overall points, 195.875 to 195.800.

But this year’s championship holds a little bit of extra meaning to the team. The program was started four seasons ago, and at the time Kesler acted as the team’s graduate assistant. She has been with the team since the beginning.

“It’s amazing to look at it big picture,” Kesler said. “It’s incredible to see that in just four years we’ve won two national titles.”

Lindenwood head coach Jen Kesler speaks with senior Valeri Ingui before she begins her routine on the beam.
Photo by Carly Fristoe

This year’s team features seven seniors, each of whom was a part of the team when it began back in 2013. They represent the first senior class in program history.

“Having our first graduating class, a bunch of the underclassmen were just like, we have to do this for the seniors,” sophomore Kayla McMullan said.

Whatever the motivation may have been, McMullan delivered her top performance of the season in the team finals, putting up the team’s highest score on the floor routine with a 9.900, and also delivering a 9.875 on the vault.

The team began the night on the uneven parallel bars, where they struggled mightily during the qualifying session the night before. The finals, however, were a much different story. Overall, they posted a score of 48.675 on the uneven bars, a vast improvement over the 48.050 they scored the previous day.

One of the key gymnasts to the improvement in the event was junior Aubree Horn.

During the qualifying session, she failed to land her dismount and ended with a 9.250. In the finals, however, she completed each part of her routine and was Lindenwood’s top scorer with a 9.825.

Rachel Zabawa points to her teammates to conclude her floor exercise routine.
Photo by Carly Fristoe

“Coming off of yesterday, that was just very uncharacteristic,” Horn said. “I just wanted to do what I know how to do and just take it easy tonight.”

The team kept its positive momentum going on the balance beam and the floor routine, scoring a 48.975 on the beam and a 49.175 on the floor, which has consistently been Lindenwood’s strongest event throughout the season.

In the finals, the Lions were led by McMullan’s 9.900, freshman Andavea Alexander’s 9.875 and senior Rachel Zabawa’s 9.850. McMullan said that the team knew it needed to be strong on the floor to keep pace with the other teams, and that they delivered when they needed to.

The team entered the final rotation on the vault with a slim lead over Bridgeport. Knowing a solid performance would help clinch the championship, the six gymnasts did not disappoint, led by senior Valeri Ingui, who posted a 9.900.

“Jen [Kelser] just told me to do the same vault that I do in practice and don’t try to be more than I am,” Ingui said.

On the vault, all five of the team’s qualifying scores were 9.775 or above, giving them their highest event score of the night with a 49.175.

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Graphic by Andres Colonna & Phil Brahm

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With their championship-winning score of 195.875, the team recorded its highest score in program history, besting the previous record of 195.800.

Kesler said that she told her team they had recorded the record-breaking score before they even knew they had won the championship.

“We told them that no matter what, at the end of the day, as long as you did your job we were happy,” Kesler said.

After ending her collegiate career with a championship, Zabawa said, “It means a lot. We have all worked so hard for it and we just build off of each other every single day. I’m just so excited and can’t wait to see what these girls can do next year.”

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Layout and design by Carly Fristoe and Phil Brahm