Russell’s return to competition greatly welcomed

Gophers sophomore Alexis Russell ran swiftly toward the vault for her first official event of the season on Jan. 19 against New Hampshire, probably not expecting the incident that would follow.

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Iowa State
what: Women’s gymnastics
when: 2 p.m., Sunday
where: Ames, Iowa

Russell would injure her right knee on the vault landing that evening, forcing her out of competition for an unknown amount of time.

But on Saturday night in the Sports Pavilion, Russell made her highly anticipated return for Minnesota. Her smile and eagerness to compete again was easy to see, and the Gophers coaches welcomed her back by allowing Russell to compete in all of the events on Saturday.

“I was so excited to be back with my team and compete,” Russell said after Saturday’s meet. “Just to be a part of everything was great.”

Russell’s return, combined with strong showings by many Gophers gymnasts on the bars and beam, provided a season-high score in their victory over Illinois-Chicago on Saturday, 194.700-189.475.

Coincidentally, Russell’s first event of the evening and also the first since her knee injury would turn out to be the vault.

Russell said after the meet that she totally forgot about the experience of injuring herself on the vault earlier in the year, and that the injury was something “that would never happen again.”

Although Russell might have been calm, it seemed as though the entire Sports Pavilion waited in anticipation for the result of Russell’s first event since the injury. As she rushed toward the vault with a brace on her right knee, all fears were quickly ceased after her successful and injury-free landing.

“Gymnastics is a sport where you have to let things go and put things out of your mind,” Russell said. “I wasn’t worried at all. I stepped up there and did what I was supposed to do and I thought I did well.”

The south Maplewood native’s distinctive athleticism provides an exciting aspect to the Gophers 2008 squad, which was shown on Saturday through a career-high score of 9.825 on the bars. Russell’s health was no longer in question when she flung herself acrobatically from bar to bar – enough of a difference from the other competitors to gain obvious respect from the crowd on hand.

“When you have someone like her in your lineup, it makes a difference,” co-head coach Meg Stephenson said about Russell. “It’s about that polish, extension and athleticism that she brings to the table.”

Minnesota junior Kristin Furukawa followed up Russell’s performance on the bars with a stunning career-high score of 9.875, enough for the top individual score on the bars and also helped the Gophers to a team victory on the event.

The beam was also a very strong event for Minnesota on Saturday, where the Gophers scored a season-high 49.175. Senior Ashley Stanton, junior Carmelina Carabajal, freshman Ana Balboa and junior Angela Walker all finished with career-highs on the beam.

The addition of Russell, along with season-best performances in the bars and beam, were more than enough for the Gophers to put out the Flames and put together what was possibly their best performance of the year.

“(Russell) is just a beautiful performer,” Stephenson said. “We counted every score of hers tonight and her addition is very important for our team’s success.”