Determination earns Alf women’s gymnastics captaincy

Ben Goessling

Last year, Minnesota’s women’s gymnastics team selected All-American MaryAnne Kelley as its captain. Kelley’s success in the gym made the choice simple, as she added two more All-America citations to her name and led the Gophers to the best season in school history.

But the Gophers’ choice for captain this season might have been even clearer.

While her accomplishments pale in comparison to Kelley’s, senior Jenny Alf was tabbed the team’s next captain in the same decisive manner as the woman whose shoes she will now try to fill.

And while the team picked Alf as its captain last spring, the issue was effectively settled last January, while she was grappling with a sprained ankle which would keep her out for the team’s first four meets.

“She never felt sorry for herself,” said co-coach Meg Stephenson. “The way she handled it had a lot to do with her being named captain.”

Alf entered the 2002 season after a sophomore campaign in which she was named all-conference on the balance beam and finished the season ranked ninth nationally in the event.

But when she rolled her ankle during a practice shortly before Thanksgiving, the momentum she built during the 2001 season started to slip away.

“I saw how well the other girls were doing, and I started to think, ‘Do they really need me?’ Little things like that run through your head,” she said.

When Alf’s recovery carried well into January, she faced missing competition for the first time in her gymnastics career.

“It was hard not being part of the team,” she said. “After we’d win a big meet, I felt happy but it wasn’t quite the same.”

Alf returned Feb. 2 with a 9.825 on beam against Ohio State, but she fell in two of the Gophers’ next three meets, and did not compete on beam and floor exercise until March 9.

And when she suffered a concussion in practice the night before the team left for the Big Ten championships, Alf’s season was in jeopardy.

“If you miss Big Tens, you usually don’t get back in the lineup for regionals,” she said. “The concussion was definitely the low point.”

But co-coaches Meg and Jim Stephenson rewarded Alf’s work ethic during rehabilitation and placed her in the lineup for the NCAA regionals.

Alf responded with a 9.8 on floor exercise at the regional meet and averaged a 9.825 on two events at the NCAA championships.

For her coaches and teammates, however, the most impressive aspect of Alf’s comeback occurred when she was the farthest away from the limelight.

“She was there for everybody, just trying to do what was needed for the team,” Meg Stephenson said. “If she couldn’t compete, she was going to figure out some other way to help out.”

And now the quiet leadership Alf displayed last year will grow by leaps and bounds this season – a role she is both excited and nervous about.

“MaryAnne Kelley will be a tough act to follow,” she said. “But I’ve always been a leader, and I’m excited about this team.”

After losing Kelley, former NCAA individual qualifier Megan Beuckens, and school vault record-holder Courtney Norman, the Gophers face a daunting journey on the way to becoming the first team in school history to qualify for consecutive NCAA meets.

But who better to lead them than someone who climbed back from oblivion on one good ankle last year?

“There are other gymnasts that are more talented than I am,” Alf said. “But I worked for everything I achieved, and I know I can pass that on to the rest of the team.”

 

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]