Russell hopes to end career on high note

The senior will compete for the last time at the 2010 NCAA meet.

by Alexandra Pluym

Gymnastics has been a part of senior Alexis RussellâÄôs life since she was two-and-a-half years old, and now the national-qualifying gymnast is moving on with her life. After competing in the NCAA all-around championships, which kick off on Thursday evening, Russell is not sure where the next road will lead her or if gymnastics will still be a big part of her life. Growing up, Russell was the only girl in a family with two brothers, so gymnastics was âÄújust one of those sports that your mom just put you in,âÄù not a run-in-the-family talent. Russell chose gymnastics because she was always naturally talented and loved learning new skills. She also wanted to see how good she could become over time. âÄúThe coaches would think I was so good so I was like, âÄòWow, maybe I am good,âÄô so IâÄôd keep going,âÄù Russell said of her original coaches. When she started high school, Russell and her mom moved to Kansas City, Mo. where she joined an elite gymnastics program called the Great American Gymnastics Express. âÄúWe were there for a year and because of injuries, I had to be done down there,âÄù said Russell, who moved back to Oakdale, Minn. after the experience. When Russell returned to Minnesota from Missouri, she left gymnastics for two years because of injuries. She suffered two stress fractures in her back which she said was âÄúbasically broken.âÄù But since recovering, sheâÄôs decided to come back into the world of gymnastics and has had no back problems. Before the painful experience in Kansas City, Russell had big dreams and goals for her gymnastics career. âÄúWe were pretty intense,âÄù she said. âÄúBy the time I was in ninth grade I was training to go to the Olympics or at least be on a national team. âÄú[Olympic gymnast] Dominique Dawes was my hero, so I always wanted to go to the Olympics when I was little,âÄù she said. In RussellâÄôs junior year of high school, she decided to return to her sport. âÄúI did miss it and I decided to do high school gymnastics to see if I was still pretty good, and I was,âÄù she said. Russell only competed on the Tartan Senior High School team for her junior season and then decided to go back to club gymnastics at Perpetual Motion in Woodbury . The heightened competition in club gymnastics essentially makes it a requirement to earn a spot on a college gymnasticâÄôs team. Russell decided to contact the Gophers coaches after she watched a college meet on ESPN. Russell said the coaches at Minnesota âÄúliked what they saw,âÄù and awarded her a scholarship. âÄúI was ecstatic,âÄù she said. âÄúTo be at home and do gymnastics, thatâÄôs amazing. It was a huge honor that Jim and Meg believed in me so much.âÄù MinnesotaâÄôs head coach Meg Stephenson said that she and her husband Jim Stephenson, who left his spot as co-head coach in 2009, first saw Russell when she was about 11 years old and immediately knew she could become âÄúthe best gymnast the state of Minnesota has ever had.âÄù Years went by and âÄî to the StephensonsâÄô shock âÄî Russell fell off the Minnesota gymnastics map. It wasnâÄôt until Jim recognized the teenage Russell at a showcase meet for gymnasts looking to join college gymnastics that he and Meg started recruiting her. âÄúShe was just a beautiful talent,âÄù Meg Stephenson said. âÄúI think Alexis really gives a wonderful look to the University of MinnesotaâÄôs gymnastics program.âÄù There have been times when Russell became frustrated with the sport, but she always knew that she could stick with it and doing so would prove to be the right choice. âÄúIâÄôve never gone to the extreme of giving up,âÄù she said. âÄúNot only would I be letting myself down, but IâÄôd be letting my teammates down.âÄù Meg has noticed big improvements in RussellâÄôs career with the Gophers, which began in 2006. âÄúI think the biggest difference for her is sheâÄôs really learned to work hard,âÄù Meg said. âÄúHer work ethic has improved and her willingness to figure out how to hit routines [is better than it was before].âÄù Russell is considering going to law school or getting involved with a political group, but doesnâÄôt want to make set plans just yet. âÄúI canâÄôt really think that far out right now,âÄù Russell said, adding that sheâÄôs excited to look at different opportunities. âÄúIâÄôm giving myself time to see what I really like,âÄù she said. As she moves forward in life, Russell is unsure if sheâÄôll have a connection with gymnastics, but expects that she will probably end up coaching or volunteering in the sport at some point. âÄúItâÄôs pretty hard to have [gymnastics] your whole life and then not have it at all,âÄù she said. As Russell heads to the NCAA meet in Gainesville, Fla., she hopes to hit all four of her routines, have fun and stay focused. And with her confidence, she has a shot at achieving her goals. âÄúI think IâÄôm the best gymnast IâÄôve ever been right now,âÄù she said.