Beginning the NCAA Tradition
The tradition of Canadian excellence in collegiate gymnastics dates back to the beginning of the partnership between the NCAA and gymnastics, and then some. When the NCAA officially took over the sport in 1982, Canadian gymnasts had already begun competing for collegiate teams in the US. Some of the first Canadian NCAA gymnasts like Penn State’s Anne McGeachy (first-ever Canadian in US college gymnastics, All-American on Floor Exercise) and Cal’s Karen Kelsall paved the way for future Canadians to enjoy success at the collegiate level.
The NCAA has become a popular option for gymnasts around the world to continue competing in the sport they’ve known their entire lives. With scholarships to some of the most elite universities in the world, a solid infrastructure that has flourished for more than 30 years, and some of the world’s most exciting competition, college gymnastics in the US has attracted not only Canadians, but many German, British, and Australian gymnasts as well. Former Olympic and World medalists compete in NCAA gymnastics nearly every year, validating the NCAA as a choice for gymnasts as well as one of the best opportunities to continue competing in a sport from which many retire at a young age.
First Canadian Superstar
One of the first Canadians to achieve superstar status in the NCAA was Florida’s Elfi Schlegel (yes, the same Elfi Schlegel who has been a broadcaster for more than 20 years). As a senior in 1986 Elfi set the Florida school record for most All-Around victories with 27, a record that still stands today. In her junior year she took 3rd in the All-Around and helped her team earn a bronze medal in the team competition at Championships. She graduated as a 6-time All-American with 3 citations in the All-Around and 3 citations on floor exercise, tying her for the 12th-highest total in school history.
Without question UCLA has had more successful Canadian gymnasts than any other US school. UCLA’s Canadian gymnasts have been so great that some could be considered all-time NCAA greats, regardless of nationality.
Here are three such gymnasts:
Yvonne Tousek (2001 – 2004)
Before competing in college, Yvonne competed at both the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games for Canada, finishing 26th and 33rd in the All-Around finals, respectively. She was much more successful at the collegiate level, however, winning 3 team championships, a team bronze medal, and an individual gold medal on bars her freshman year. She was consistently excellent, earning a perfect 10 twice and finishing her career as a 9-time All-American.
Tousek competes on floor at the PAC 10 Championships in 2003.
Kate Richardson (2003-2006)
Arguably the most successful collegiate gymnast to come out of Canada, Kate electrified the NCAA, winning several titles and setting records throughout her career. She competed in the Olympics twice: once before college and once during. In the 2000 Olympics she finished 15th in the All-Around; in the 2004 Olympics (between her sophomore and junior years) she finished 18th in the All-Around and became the first female Canadian ever to qualify for floor exercise finals, finishing 7th. In 2003 the PAC 10 Freshman of the Year took gold on bars and beam, 3rd in the All-Around, and was a key member of the national championship-winning team. In 2004 she led the team to another national championship and helped UCLA set the record for the highest total team score in NCAA Championships history. As a senior she won the floor exercise title giving her 5 gold medals at NCAA Championships for her career. The 13-time All-American is in elite company in UCLA’s history: 9 total perfect 10s (3rd in school history); 4 perfect 10s on beam (1st in school history); part of the 3 highest team totals in school history; part of the highest event totals on all four apparatus in school history; 4th-highest All-Around score in school history (39.850); and 4th-most All-America citations in school history (13).
Richardson on floor during prelims at the 2004 Olympic Games.
Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs (2009-2012)
The 2010 UCLA team ended the five-year reign of Georgia’s dominance at the National Championships with Elyse a key member of the team, earning the highest floor score (9.950) and 2nd-highest beam score (9.900) of all teams in the Super Six that year. The former PAC-10 Freshman of the Year ended her career with 12 All-America citations (3 on floor) and was the 2012 floor exercise co-silver medalist. Prior to college Elyse became the first female Canadian in history to win a medal at the World Championships (3rd on beam in 2006). She followed that up with a trip to the 2008 Olympics, qualifying into the All-Around in 19th and finishing 16th.
Hopfner-Hibbs in floor finals at the 2012 NCAA Championships.
Carrying on the Tradition
This tradition of high-performing Canadian elites factoring prominently in NCAA gymnastics continues. For example, 2008 Olympian Nansy Damianova is entering her junior year at Utah, where she’s known for her lovely bars and floor. 2012 Olympian and multiple World team member Kristina Vaculik joined Stanford in 2011, but took a break to train for London. We expect big things from her as she rejoins the team this season.
Several young stars of Canadian gymnastics have signed with US schools and will make their collegiate debuts next month. The biggest catch is likely fan favorite Christine ‘Peng Peng’ Lee at UCLA. Lee was slated to head her country’s Olympic team this summer until a knee injury took her out of the running. Her knee’s on the mend and she’s been training with the Bruins, though it’s unclear how soon we’ll see her compete.
Mega-talented Florida signed Canadian National Team member Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto. Although Florida is fielding an incredibly deep team, Bianca could crack a few lineups by the end of the season. The Georgia Gym Dawgs signed Anysia Unick (also a Canadian National Team member) and Brittany Rogers (a 2012 Olympian for Team Canada), and hope that they can help restore them to their former glory; both bring a lot of international experience and could have an immediate impact on the team. Then there’s Jessica Savona, first alternate for the 2012 Olympic team, who’ll lend her talents to the rising LSU team; we’re likely to see her in line-ups early on. There’s no doubt that each of these freshmen have the potential to become future NCAA stars.
In the following season we will see World Team member Mikaela Gerber follow in the footsteps of her big sister, Aisha, by joining the Bruins. Kristina Vaculik’s little sister, Natalie, also a gymnast, has not yet committed to a school. We have to wonder, though, if we’ll see her in collegiate gymnastics in the next few years.
All the World’s a Stage
Floor Exercise seems to be where most Canadians shine. Multiple NCAA floor medals, All-America awards and some of the most memorable routines in college history have come from Canadian gymnasts. In a time when elite gymnastics focuses on power and some critics lament the lack of artistry in many NCAA routines, nearly every Canadian gymnast in the NCAA brings a superior level of dance and choreography to every meet.
From the dramatic elegance of Utah’s Nansy Damianova to the captivating and energetic routines of Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs and the delightfully quirky dance of Kate Richardson, Canadian gymnastics is full of world-class choreography. That excellence is still the standard as the 2012 Canadian Olympic team had its highest apparatus score on floor in qualifications and its second-highest apparatus score on floor in team finals. As Canadians continue to compete in the NCAA and this tradition marks its 3rd decade, we can continue to enjoy the diversity, elegance and championship-caliber gymnastics that Canada has given us.
Utah’s Damianova competes on floor against Stanford in 2012.
Article: Alex Steele
Photo: Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs, from NCAA.com
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