Dec. 19, 2008
STANFORD, Calif. - For years, the elite of collegiate women's gymnastics had been a fairly exclusive club, dominated by a select few. Stanford, however, has forced its way in.
Stanford's third-place national finish last season was the most visible indication that the Cardinal has arrived, but it is only the latest in a series of signs:
Stanford has two top-three NCAA finishes in four years.
Stanford is among four schools to reach the Super Six - the Super Bowl and Final Four of collegiate women's gymnastics all in one - in each of the past two years.
Stanford is one of seven schools to reach the Super Six four times in the past seven years.
Stanford is the defending Pacific-10 champion and has captured three conference titles in the past five years.
Twelve Stanford gymnasts have won 56 All-America honors since coach Kristen Smyth arrived in 2002.
Seven Cardinal gymnasts have won Pac-10 individual titles in that time.
"The athletes have worked hard over the last decade and have bought into the program philosophy," Smyth said. "We have history now and a program rich in tradition. It has been through years of building that we are now recognized as a top tier program.
"We have been fortunate to have great student-athletes at Stanford that have been able to gracefully balance the rigors of school and athletics. They are a committed group and always fighting to prove themselves. They love their sport and find real joy in training together and sacrificing for each other. It is exciting to watch their confidence build over their four years in the program and even more rewarding to follow them as they move on in their lives. They are a confident and successful group of young women and it has been a privilege to work with them and watch them grow."
Part of establishing tradition is creating memorable events that become part of its lore. Stanford got one from Heather Purnell, at April's Super Six in Athens, Ga.
The pressure was on Purnell as she leaped to the balance beam as Stanford's last performer in that event.
As a replacement for an injured teammate, Purnell's appearance may have seemed somewhat of a gamble. She hadn't competed for six weeks because of a knee injury, until performing in a relatively tamer situation at the team preliminaries the night before.
This time, Purnell was following a teammate's miss and, if she suffered a similar fate, the Cardinal may have been condemned to a poor finish.
Instead, Purnell shined.
It was "the routine of her life," Smyth said.
Purnell scored a 9.850 to keep Stanford alive for a top-three finish. By finishing ahead of three of the four schools from the heralded Southeastern Conference, the Cardinal earned further respect and stamped itself as one of the nation's rising powers.
But last season has passed and a new one begins Jan. 2 at the Cancun Classic. Purnell's performance, however, transcends years and seasons and teams because it underscores the essence of Stanford women's gymnastics.
In one routine, the performance embodied many principles of Smyth's coaching philosophy: being ready when called upon, picking up your teammates, handling pressure and feeling comfortable on a big stage - all while having fun.
Despite losing much experience, the Cardinal still has plenty of firepower. Eleven returnees have been part of a Super Six team and eight have been part of two.
The Cardinal has four returning All-Americans: Kelly Fee, Carly Janiga, Nicole Ourada, and Blair Ryland. Of those, Janiga and Ourada are among nine in school history to have earned all-around All-America honors.
In addition, a strong five-member freshman class includes Canadian Olympic first alternate Alyssa Brown, Czech Republic national-team veteran Nicole Pechanec and former United States junior national team member Catherine Nguyen.
In all, six current Cardinal gymnasts have competed for their country's senior national teams: Brown (Canada), Fee (U.S.), Allyse Ishino (U.S.) Janiga (U.S.), Pechanec (Czech Republic) and Purnell (Canada).
"Every year brings potential, renewed excitement and promise," Smyth said. "This team has great leadership and determination. They understand the team concept and have a lot of heart. I'm really encouraged."
The following is an event-by-event breakdown of Stanford's team:
Stanford has begun to create a tradition of success in the all-around, earning individual All-America honors the past six years, and eight of the past nine. Yim captured the Pac-10 title last season on the way to earning conference Gymnast of the Year honors.
Janiga and Ourada are contenders to succeed Yim as conference champion. Janiga was fourth nationally as a freshman in 2007, while Ourada has received All-America second-team honors the past two years. Each has a career-best of 39.575.
"Carly looks better than ever. She is in top shape and has been extremely consistent in practice during the preseason," Smyth said. "She has taken her role as a team captain seriously and has emerged as a great leader. Our challenge will be to slow her down a little bit, so that she can peak in April.
"Nikki came to Stanford not very well known, but over the years, with hard work and dedication, she has steadily proven herself on the national scene. Now people know her name, appreciate her work and will expect great things from her."
Brown, Canada's top all-around performer at the 2007 world championships, could see action in this position, as could Nguyen, 15th at the U.S. senior nationals in 2007, if she recovers sufficiently from injury. Nguyen tore a bicep tendon before she arrived and had surgery in August. She could be ready by midseason.
Janiga, Ourada and Ryland have each earned All-America honors in this event, and are joined by Brown, the 2006 Canadian national champion.
Even though Stanford enters the season with questions about depth on vault, this should be a solid event.
"We have been looking good on vault in the preseason," Smyth said. "Dani, Shelley and Gretchen have really stepped up and made big improvements and our core of Blair, Carly, Nikki and Brown are well prepared and ready to go. We are lean on vault this year and will be starting the season without Allyse Ishino, Cat Nguyen and Stephanie Carter. All three are fantastic vaulters and we are looking forward to having them back in the lineup by midseason."
Ishino tore the anterior cruciate ligament of her knee on a landing at Pac-10s last season, but has been rehabbing well and should be a big contributor.
The depth in this event is unquestionably strong. Ishino scored 9.90 three times last season and hit at least 9.825 in 10 meets. Janiga, Ourada, and Fee are returning starters and form the nucleus of one of the best groups in the country.
This could be the team's strongest event. Fee and Ourada are first-team All-Americans, Janiga the defending Pac-10 champ, Ikoma a Junior Olympic national champion, Pechanec a World Cup winner, and Brown a Canadian titlist.
Ourada, third in the 2007 NCAA's and a two-time first-team All-American, leads the way, but there will be much competition and support. Purnell, the captain of Canada's 2004 Olympic team, has proven herself in pressure-packed situations in this event. Ishino was a beautiful and consistent performer for the Cardinal last year as well.
Janiga has earned All-America honors the past two years, placing eighth in 2007, and leads a group that should please the crowd with its combination of explosiveness and elegance.
Ourada, Janiga, Fee, Purnell and Tenaya West are returning starters on the floor. West, in particular, has been a revelation. The junior walk-on scored a 9.900 at UC Davis and a solid 9.850 at the NCAA regionals, and continues to improve.
Alexander, Ikoma, Pechanec, Peter, and Ryland also are among those in the mix for the six starting spots.
Overall, "I'm excited about this team and what they bring," Smyth said. "They're going to grow and improve throughout the year, all while knowing that there is a history of success and a level of expectation.
"Our goal is to compete on the last day of the year and I am excited about our chances with this group. We are a deep team and all of the athletes will see action throughout the year. Top to bottom there have been big improvements from everybody during the preseason. In the end, staying healthy, hitting 24 routines and landing well are the keys to success. This year will be no different."