Women’s gymnasts setting bars higher

by Ben Goessling

Two years ago, Minnesota women’s gymnastics co-coaches Jim and Meg Stephenson decided their team needed a makeover.

They saw a gap between the Gophers and the top teams in the country, and decided the only way to close that gap was to increase the difficulty of their gymnasts’ routines.

The Stephenson’s began the transition on the uneven bars, Minnesota’s second-weakest event during the 2000 season. With the help of assistant coach Doug Day, the Gophers began incorporating some of the sport’s most difficult dismounts into their bar routines.

This season, the move appears to have worked. Minnesota ranks 10th nationally on the uneven bars, up from 21st two seasons ago, and ranks 11th in the country overall, a jump of seven spots from the 2000 campaign.

“When you put up an entire team that has dismounts of high difficulty, it creates an aura that is very unique,” Jim Stephenson said. “The team bought into the plan, and adding that to their ambition, we’ve been able to create the best bar team Minnesota’s ever had.”

The Gophers’ improvement might be best illustrated by their performance against three-time defending Big Ten champion Michigan on Jan. 19. Minnesota lost by a mere one-tenth of a point in a performance that included a victory on the uneven bars.

Michigan, ranked ninth in the country, occupies the fifth spot in the national uneven bar rankings and boasts a lineup that includes 2000 U.S. Olympian Elise Ray. According to Jim Stephenson, his team’s performance sent a message to the rest of the nation about the Gophers’ talent.

“That information travels quickly in the small gymnastics community, and it affects us positively when we travel,” Stephenson said. “The judges know how we’ve done against other teams. They expect to see good routines, and consequently, they’re prepared to give out high scores.”

The emergence of sophomores Annie Laatsch, Alicia Opsahl, and Mary Skokut has been essential to the Gophers’ success this season. Laatsch leads the team with a 9.808 average and ranks fifth in the Big Ten on the bars. Skokut ranks sixth in the conference with a 9.8 average in the event.

“Their routines are extremely difficult, and their form is so beautiful that there’s nothing for the judges to (deduct),” said senior MaryAnne Kelley.

The increasingly difficult routines have resulted in several shaky performances for the team this season. But the Gophers are more focused on progress towards the NCAA Championships, which they missed by just .15 points last year, than any early-season struggles.

“We’re not going to see what our routines are worth until the bigger meets, because right now the judges are just scoring on form,” said senior Megan Bueckens. “When we get to conference and regions, the judges will really respect that we’re doing more difficult routines.”

And with that respect, the makeover will be complete.