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“Challengers” releases in theaters on April 26.
Review: “Challengers”
Published April 13, 2024

Carabajal, Russell develop a sister-like bond

Senior Carmelina Carabajal and junior Alexis Russell were paired up as big and little sister by coaches two years ago, something that has helped them to develop and deep and lasting bond.
Image by Chris Roberts
Senior Carmelina Carabajal and junior Alexis Russell were paired up as big and little sister by coaches two years ago, something that has helped them to develop and deep and lasting bond.

Even before coming to the University of Minnesota, Alexis Russell had an idol on the team that she aspired to be like one day: Carmelina Carabajal, this yearâÄôs senior team captain and one of the most highly decorated gymnasts the Stephenson coaches have ever seen. Fate would have it that at the start of the 2007 season, the two would be paired as big and little sister in the StephensonâÄôs Big Sister program for freshmen Gophers gymnasts. One of the most accomplished and talented gymnasts as a sophomore, Carabajal took elated Russell under her wing right away. But this wasnâÄôt any ordinary big sister match; it was something special. Russell can clearly recall all of her sentiments towards Carabajal from the very start of a wonderful relationship. âÄúI thought she was so awesome. When I came here, I had already kind of like [said], âÄòCarm is one of my favorites, sheâÄôs good, IâÄôm going to watch out for her,âÄù Russell said. But Carabajal, a leader at heart, put Russell to the test every day in the gym. She saw her talents and abilities and made sure they were maximized. Even in conditioning, which Russell hates to this day, Carabajal was relentless. âÄúWhen Alexis first got here, she absolutely hated conditioning,âÄù co-head coach Meg Stephenson said. âÄúI know Carm really held her to the fire.âÄù Even with all of the extra time and effort Carabajal made Russell commit to, she knew exactly what she was doing. âÄúI know I was kind of hard on her at first, but sheâÄôs turned into such an amazing, amazing gymnast,âÄù Carabajal said. âÄúI tried to mentor her as well as I could and I think sheâÄôs found more respect to me as the years went on.âÄù The relationship is still steadfast between the two. Russell describes the unique sister-like connection best. âÄú[In competition], we kind of just look at each other or give each other a certain look,âÄù Russell said. Russell, a junior, couldnâÄôt be more thankful for her idol. From keeping her conditioned to being there when her brother was ill, Carabajal is there for any of RussellâÄôs and anyone elseâÄôs needs. The gratitude, however, goes both ways. Every week, the two stand from the top and lead a Minnesota team by example. In the GophersâÄô past two meets, for instance, the two have alternated for first and second place in the all-around. In last weekendâÄôs meet against Iowa State, Russell scored a 39.375, claiming top honors in the all-around and placing ahead of her mentor. This only eases the pressures of being a captain for Carabajal. âÄúI feel like Alexis has really learned how to lead the team with me and IâÄôm really appreciative of her,âÄù Carabajal said. But Carabajal will always be conscious that Russell, along with every gymnast, could use some helpful tips on occasion. âÄúI hope she doesnâÄôt feel like IâÄôm trying to be her mom, but I try to help her out whenever I can,âÄù Carabajal said.

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