Gophers women earn trip to NCAAs

Susan Filkins

When the Gophers women’s gymnastics team sat down for dinner Saturday night after competing in the Central Regional Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., they decided to order dessert, something they do not normally do.
Minnesota felt satisfied about its performance but did not think its 195.125 score would be high enough to qualify them for the NCAA championships.
They were in for a huge surprise.
The Gophers arrived back to their hotel only to be greeted by gymnasts from other teams and a small but thrilled contingent of Minnesota followers.
“Some girl from Alabama was the first one to tell me,” senior Jonda Hammons said. “Then people started screaming, and I thought ‘I want to see it on paper.'”
Hammons and her teammates had learned that they were on their way to Gainesville, Fla., in two weeks to compete in the NCAAs.
“I just remember telling myself, ‘I knew I shouldn’t have had that piece of cake,'” Hammons said. “I had no idea we would qualify.”
The Gophers will make an appearance in the national championships for the first time as a team since 1982. Some Minnesota gymnasts qualified individually for the competition in 1990, but since then, they have been absent from nationals.
The celebration in the hotel was evidence of the 15-year drought.
“I have never seen so many people so excited in my life,” Gophers coach Jim Stephenson said. “The team broke out into tears and the parents were in hysterics. The scene was completely wild.”
The top 12 teams qualify for nationals and the Gophers found themselves in the 11th qualifying spot.
Stephenson called the invitation to nationals a wonderful reward after a frightening start to the regional competition. It was a competition full of adversity.
Minnesota started out on the balance beam, typically their weakest event, where two gymnasts fell off the apparatus.
“Coming off beam, the feeling from the team was, ‘Oh no, here we go again,'” Stephenson said.
But Minnesota regained composure on the beam and headed to the floor exercise, which the Gophers usually dominate.
Things were off to a good start in the floor until stand-out freshman Judith Cavazos sprained her ankle in the middle of her routine.
Realizing that Cavazos would be unable to compete in the other two events, Stephenson inserted freshman Melissa Chang to fill in for Cavazos in the uneven bars. Chang replied with a confident “no problem” to the task.
Chang was already scheduled to compete in the vault for Minnesota to replace freshman Kristi Selinger, who had slightly injured her shoulder earlier in the week. But with Cavazos out of the lineup, Selinger performed even though she was not 100 percent.
Both freshman responded by hitting their routines and scoring positive scores for Minnesota. Stephenson was extremely pleased of his younger gymnasts’ ability to perform well in a pressure situation.
“The team voted Selinger and Chang as the MVPs of the meet,” Stephenson said. “It was great to have people from the younger end of the squad step forward and pull through.”
Minnesota finished the meet in fourth place following No. 2 Michigan with a 197.7, No. 4 Alabama (196.25), and No. 5 LSU (196.175). The Gophers and the Wolverines will be joined by Penn State representing the Big Ten at nationals.
The conversation after the competition was filled with memories shared from the great season they had just finished. A few hours later, the Gophers realized their reminiscing was premature.
“When I heard the news at the hotel, I just backed away to cherish the moment,” Stephenson said. “For the first time in a long time, we will be able to show-off at the national level how beautiful and eloquent this gymnastics team is.”