Gymnastics

WGYM: An Unexpected Farewell to 2020 Season

For many collegiate athletes across the nation, the 2020 season collapsed with a bang. Though there’s sure to be more discussion and clarification from the NCAA, spring athletes will get an extra year of eligibility, but winter sports will not. Put simply, that means that all winter sports seniors have just had their careers cut short – not by any fault of their own, or by unforeseen injury, but by a pandemic terrorizing the world that may never even touch them.

Thankfully for most sports, there’s life after college – pro leagues, elite/Olympic level competition, or even both. But for women’s gymnastics, that’s rarely the case. Female gymnasts peak so early in their lives, usually between 16 and 18 years old, because of the physical advantages that come with being younger and smaller. So the timeline for an elite gymnast typically ends with competing at the collegiate level – college is where gymnasts who have only known intense, individual competition their entire careers go to have fun and share what they love with a team, competing for a common goal. For Florida’s gymnastics seniors, 2020 was it. This was the final round for them, their year to celebrate all their achievements and do what they love one last time.

This year was especially important to the Gators because of what’s behind them – their first season not qualifying to the national championships in over a decade; their disaster of a beam rotation at super-regionals; their trip at the finish line of SEC Championships. These gymnasts had put all of those disappointments behind them and used them as fuel for their fire to up the ante, to be more consistent and more competitive, to be closer as a team and compete with that closeness to each other in mind.

It was working, too. This season, watching Florida felt magical – it was very much the same feeling that fans felt when the Gators won their first national title seven years ago. The beam team set a record for most consecutive meets scoring above 49.5: a grand total of seven, when the previous record was four, and they could’ve kept going, had the season continued. Gymnasts were setting and matching personal bests left and right, with Trinity Thomas earning four perfect 10.0s on three different events throughout the season.

While we could wax poetic about the what-ifs this season could have brought for this team for days on end, we at ChompTalk are choosing instead to celebrate the incredible achievements of the seniors whose competitive careers ended on an incredible upward trajectory. Amelia Hundley, Rachel Gowey, Sierra Alexander, and Maegan Chant are part of one of the most accomplished classes in the country, so let’s take a trip down memory lane to talk about all the incredible things they’ve done.

Amelia Hundley

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Amelia Hundley celebrates a stuck landing. Photo by Erin Long.

When talking about Amelia Hundley’s impact on this Gator gymnastics team, the words “heart and soul” come to mind. Hundley practically bleeds orange and blue, she’s so dedicated to Gator Nation. I can’t think of a single press conference she attended where she hasn’t mentioned how grateful she is for Gator Nation or credited them with boosting the team’s energy and creating the best competition atmosphere. It’s clear she loved performing in the O-Dome – it’s written all over her face. Known affectionately as “Meels,” Hundley will go down in history as one of the Gator greats.

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Hundley playing air guitar during her senior floor routine. Photo by Erin Long.

Hundley comes from a competitive background, growing up in one of the most storied elite programs in the country at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy under the tutelage of Mary Lee Tracy. She followed in the footsteps of five Olympians, twelve World Championships team members, and dozens of national team members. Hundley would go on to represent the United States in several competitions, including at the Pacific Rim Championships, the Pan American Games, and an FIG World Cup assignment in Stuttgart. She also qualified to 2016 Olympic Trials, where she placed ninth all-around due to the well-rounded set she put together, including a bars routine pretty similar to the one she competed at Florida.

Upon arrival in Gainesville, Hundley was an immediate all-around threat. She competed all-around nearly every week her freshman year, and though she dropped down to competing three events most of the time as a sophomore, she still had a vault ready when her team needed her. Her career best marks on all four events are 9.9 or higher, including a 9.95 on floor and a 9.975 on bars. Though she never reached perfection, Hundley was the picture of consistency. She only had seven misses in her entire collegiate career out of a whopping 162 routines competed. That’s a 95.6% hit rate, for those playing along at home.

But despite that high rate of success, Hundley found peace in imperfection while at Florida. In the constructive, collaborative environment head coach Jenny Rowland has created for her gymnasts, Hundley took ownership of her gymnastics, perfect and imperfect, and picked up Rowland’s ability to meet people where they are. In a recent interview, Hundley spoke of the collective leadership environment on the team. One of the things she loves so much about her time at Florida is that she’s “see[n] people’s different perspectives and leadership styles and see how that intertwines [so we can] all come together to lead the team.”

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Hundley performs her acro series on beam. Photo by Erin Long.

As she grew in both age and experience, Hundley became a leader the team looked to in good times and in difficulty. She took on important roles in lineups, including leadoff and anchor positions, on and off throughout her time as a Gator. She could always be counted on to pump her teammates up or talk them down if they had too much adrenaline. After the crushing disappointment of discovering the team would not qualify to nationals, it was only Hundley who could find the words to speak to Gator Nation. Through misty eyes, she had a message, for both her team and its fans: 2020 would be better, they would use this to light a fire and make sure of it.

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Hundley’s Maloney in flight on uneven bars. Photo by Erin Long.

In her final meet in the O-Dome, Hundley scored a pair of 9.9s on bars and floor. She earned enormous cheers from the crowd during her classic rock floor routine dedicated to her father, her biggest cheerleader throughout her gymnastics career. She was also named to the SEC Community Service Team, rewarding her kind heart and selflessness that she’s shared with both her team and her community. Lucky for Gator fans, this is not the last time we’ll see her in Gainesville. She will be a student coach next year while she completes her dual degrees at UF, sharing her leadership, passion, and positivity with a new class of baby Gators.

Rachel Gowey

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Rachel Gowey flashing a heart at the Valentine’s Day meet at Auburn. Photo by Erin Long.

Rachel Gowey’s hallmark throughout her time as a Gator has been her perfect combination of effortless elegance and authentic, positive energy. She always brings out the best in her teammates, keeping everyone smiling and laughing while maintaining focus on the goal at hand. Both in and out of the gym, Gowey is poised – whether flipping down the length of the beam or answering a tough question in a press conference, it always seemed as though she knew exactly what was needed. To keep the mood light at Florida’s away meet at Auburn on Valentine’s Day, Gowey encouraged the whole team to end their floor routines making a heart with their hands rather than with their usual ending poses. Teammate Trinity Thomas couldn’t help but describe Gowey as “amazing. She’s so talented and knows how talented our team is. She pushed us and helped keep everyone on track.”

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Gowey showing off her perfect 180 degree split she was often praised for on beam. Photo by Erin Long.

Like teammate Hundley, Gowey grew up in a prestigious gym just a few states west – Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance in Iowa, which produced 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson and many other strong elites. Gowey, too, made her mark in elite, representing Team USA at international competitions like the City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy and the Pan American Championships. She, too, was invited to Olympic Trials in 2016 and placed 6th on bars, just behind the legendary Simone Biles. She also showcased a difficulty-packed routine on beam, showing why she should be on perfect 10.0 watch even before she came to Florida.

When she first arrived at Florida, Gowey quickly made a name for herself as a versatile gymnast but clearly showed special prowess on bars and beam as she had in elite. While she earned various All-SEC and All-American honors each year of her collegiate career between those two events, she also stepped into the all-around on occasion, even earning an AA title in one meet her freshman year. Every year she spent in Gainesville, Gowey never settled for where she was, pushing herself and showing quantifiable improvements with at least one new career high each season.

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Gowey’s Ray flies high on uneven bars. Photo by Erin Long.

Last season, she tied two of her teammates for a share of the SEC beam title, meaning that she will graduate holding the title of reigning SEC beam champion. During her time as a Gator, she earned four All-America and three Scholastic All-American honors, though 2020’s Scholastic list hasn’t been announced. Additionally, this year’s All-SEC team and yearly awards haven’t been announced just yet, but it’s highly likely Gowey will end up with All-SEC nods and SEC Academic Honor Roll placements for every year of her college career.

But above all the accolades and the honors, Gowey enjoyed her senior year most because she felt prepared, ready to tackle her senior year “head-on in a very positive way,” according to Rowland. She saw Gowey as the kind of senior who lives in the moment and makes her last the best season of her career. And Gowey did just that – she became a staple in the floor lineup for the first time since her sophomore season, setting herself a new career high on the event, and she capped off her career by finally earning a perfect 10.0 on beam!

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Gowey tackles teammate Alyssa Baumann in a hug after a hit routine. Photo by Erin Long.

Like roommate Hundley, Gowey has grown into a mentor role on the team, giving her own brand of honest advice and great pep talks to any teammate who needs it. Her post-gymnastics plans are also focused on helping her fellow athletes: she plans to become a chiropractor, wanting to seize the “opportunity to help athletes be the best that they can be,” in her own words. She’ll graduate later this year with a degree in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, which she’ll follow with an internship and then graduate school. She may be done with gymnastics, but her legacy will live forever in Florida’s record books and in the hearts of Gator Nation.

Sierra Alexander

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Sierra Alexander celebrating her vault landing. Photo by Erin Long.

When asked to describe senior Sierra Alexander in one word, teammate Thomas told us: “lighthearted. Her words help me get through a hard meet and [she] makes sure that at practice every day, we’re not too stressed out and having fun.” This fun-loving Gator’s exuberance in life shined through in every outing in the O-Dome, whether celebrating her own great landing, dancing during warmups, or supporting her teammates during their routines. Though she only ever saw lineup time on vault, Alexander made the most of her competitive outings, and her big shoes on the Gator vault squad will certainly be hard to fill.

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Alexander running down the vault runway. Photo by Erin Long.

A homegrown Florida girl, Alexander comes from West Broward Gymnastics Academy. She’s arguably their most successful alumna to date, as she’s only one of two gymnasts from WBGA to compete in DI and the only one in a top ten program. She qualified to JO Nationals the year before coming to Florida, placing top ten on vault and beam in a division full of her future NCAA competitors. And she’s always brought the drama on floor, as evidenced in this video of her routine from her final J.O. season.

Once at Florida, Alexander had lots of teammates to compete with for lineup berths, but she quickly distinguished herself with clean form and dynamic flight. By just the fifth meet of her freshman year, she became a lineup mainstay on vault, culminating in a season high of 9.875 at the last home meet of the season. In 2018, her solid vaulting continued, sitting securely in the first half of the lineup until disaster struck. Alexander tore her Achilles in practice shortly before Florida’s first meet in February, ending her sophomore season where she had hoped to finally crack the floor lineup.

But injury couldn’t stop this Gator’s passion. Rowland describes her as “very driven, independent, and motivated,” and Alexander demonstrated that in her recovery just as much as in her gymnastics. Alexander spent her season cheering on teammates, keeping the team vibe positive and strong, and traveling with the team even though she couldn’t compete.

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Alexander gives a pep talk to teammate Thomas before a routine at Link to Pink 2020. Photo by Erin Long.

That motivation led Alexander into her junior year, where she returned to the vault lineup with a vengeance, showing growth in power and amplitude since we had last seen her in competition. She matched her career-high three times in her junior season and became a lineup mainstay. As a senior, she achieved new heights, reaching the perfect 9.95 mark for her Yurchenko full on two separate occasions, including at her last-ever meet, an away meet at Penn State, where she became one of three Gators to reach perfection. This set a new record for Florida: it was the first away meet where multiple gymnasts had earned perfect marks. Her tenacity and leadership were instrumental in the team’s concerted effort to push harder and higher this season, which they had hoped would lead them back to a national title.

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Alexander poses as her floor routine begins at the Orange and Blue exhibition in preseason. Photo by Erin Long

Alexander also grew in her endeavors off the mat, discovering her calling as a writer and choosing degrees in English and African-American Studies in order to get her there. She had always been goal-oriented, but in her time at Florida, she learned that “you can’t get to a goal without steps and without a process. You can have a big goal… but it’s only a dream if you don’t work towards it.” These steps, plus a plan to travel to England for graduate school, are the first in a process that will likely make Alexander successful in her post-gymnastics life for many years to come. She will take with her the many SEC Academic Honor Roll and WCGA Scholastic All-American honors she earned (one for every season!) and the many life lessons she learned from her teammates, her coaches, and her sport.

Maegan Chant

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Maegan Chant and coach Owen Field celebrate a stuck landing on bars. Photo by Erin Long.

Though her collegiate career was not perhaps what she had expected, it would take more than injury for Maegan Chant, lovingly known as “Maegs,” to give up on gymnastics. She fought through injuries and surgery to contribute however she could to her team, whether on vault, bars, or floor or off the mat entirely. Teammate Thomas was emphatic describing the senior, saying how Chant “always made sure everyone knew they could come to her for help,” despite having so many hardships herself.

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Chant shows off a perfect handstand on bars. Photo by Erin Long.

A former Canadian national team member, Chant had a high pedigree on her pre-college resume – two-time World Championships team member, four-time Pacific Rim Championships medalist, team silver at the 2015 Pan American Games (right behind future Gator teammates Hundley and Gowey, who earned gold on Team USA), and an invitation to Canadian Olympic National Selection camp for 2016. She was even named Gymnastics Canada’s Athlete of the Year in her first senior elite season! Here’s her floor routine from that silver-medal-winning team performance at the 2015 Pan American Games. It really shows off her strong tumbling and powerful presence.

Due to ankle injuries, she came to Gainesville not knowing how much she would be able to contribute. Tumbling was probably out of the question, as she discovered when she had difficulties competing floor in her first two career meets. But her beautiful bars set became invaluable to the team, competing on bars 10 out of the 14 meets of her freshman season. Her Tsukahara full vault also brought a 10.0 start value to the team, something all schools were scrambling to get more of as the Yurchenko full had recently been devalued. She notched season highs of 9.875 on both events, which became career highs as she was unfortunately able to compete less and less over the years.

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Chant salutes after a vault landing at Arkansas. Photo by Erin Long.

Her sophomore season brought ankle surgery and lots of time rehabbing, but she took on other roles in the gym – supporting her teammates and being a vocal leader in practice and competition alike. “I came in super enthusiastic and excited for what was to come. I had set goals for myself and had super high expectations for how I would compete and help the team, but unfortunately every year… I’ve been injured,” Chant said in an interview with UF Athletics. “I wish it would have been a bit different and I wish I would’ve been able to compete a little more and help the team, but I really learned to help the team in different ways and find fulfillment through that.”

Chant used her time off the mat wisely, pouring her energy into being someone her teammates could seek out for help, a sounding board for advice or a steady shoulder for support. She also devoted time to her studies, earning SEC Honor Roll and Scholastic All-American honors each year of her career despite a challenging curriculum in her pre-nursing Health Education & Behavior program.

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Chant gives a big Gator chomp coming down the hallway toward the competition floor at the O-Dome. Photo by Erin Long.

Following surgery, Chant came back to both the vault and bars lineups ready to contribute. She posted season bests of 9.85 on both apparatus, competing in a total of six meets in her junior season. Of her competitive outings, she said, “…the moments that I have been able to compete are special moments… I’ve been able to enjoy them a little bit more because they were very few and far in between.” She put the lessons of coach Rowland into practice, “staying in the moment” and “loving the process.”

Though she did not compete in her senior season due to wrist injuries, the lessons gymnastics imparts do not require records or accolades, or even competitive routines. The time she spent training, honing her craft, and building relationships with her coaches and teammates are worth more than any titles or awards. Chant says that her work ethic is her biggest takeaway from her time as a gymnast, which will serve her well when she begins nursing school after a gap year.

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The 2020 seniors with their SEC Regular Season Championship trophy. Photo by Erin Long.

The 2020 seniors may not have gotten the end of the season they deserved, but these four have squeezed every last drop of goodness out of the careers they had. They lived together all four years of college, bonding closer than even most teammates usually do.

Combined between them, they’ve won almost every honor available to most college gymnasts. They’ve become leaders, advisors, and owners of their own gymnastics, just as coach Rowland has always asked of them. They and their teammates were 100% capable of winning the national championship, but despite this crisis keeping them from their goal, it can’t take away the mark that these four are leaving on the Gator Gymnastics program.

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