Feb. 25, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - For Stanford's Shelley Alexander, Danielle Ikoma, and Allyse Ishino, Sunday's dual meet against Arizona State at Maples Pavilion (2 p.m.) marks the final home meet of their careers. All three have been versatile competitors and regulars in the lineup for years. While Ishino is in her fifth year, true seniors Alexander and Ikoma have long been the representatives of the class of 2011.
Recently, they sat down and talked about the unique qualities of this year's team, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation. They also talked about dealing with pressure, and how they feel about their gymnastics careers coming to an end.
Here is the conversation:
Q: Dani, you've been involved in many events, but this is your first year doing the all-around. What's that been like?
Dani: Since my freshman year that's been my goal. It's a really great experience. It's great to finally reach something I've been striving for four years.
Q: Have you always trained for all four events?
Dani: I always trained all four events, and I was in the lineups for each of them at some point or another, just never at the same time.
Q: Have injuries to teammates forced you to do more than you might have expected?
Dani: We were struggling with that a lot in the beginning of the season, but some of the people who were injured are coming back now. So, we have a lot more depth than we started out with, especially on floor and beam, and bars too. The only thing we're missing is vault, but we've got Shona Morgan and Nicole Pechanec coming up there, and Kristina Vaculik too. So, we've got a few more people working to get in the vault lineup.
Q: How competitive is it for those lineup spots?
Dani: I just know from experience it's very hard to get into the lineup and you have to be consistent with your work. That's the main thing. And you have to be confident in your work. It's definitely an accomplishment when you get into the lineups.
Q: The team is pretty close, but does the competition for spots create any tension?
Dani: There are moments, but we support each other, even when we're competing for spots.
Shelley: Everybody on the team is really competitive. That's just the nature of us as athletes and Stanford students who like to excel at everything they do. But I think that it helps us. We always talk about how it's great to have people pushing you for your spot because it makes all of us better. So, when people are in a pressure situation to get their spot, they usually do a lot better and step up and earn it. It's great to get that added pressure and push each other, but once we earn our spot we turn right around and support that person - you become the No. 1 cheerleader for that person because you would want them to succeed as much as they would want you to. We're sisters. So, it never has a negative effect. I've never experienced that.
Q: Things have gone so smoothly for the team this year. How tough is that to sustain? It seems the team is performing at a higher level in terms of confidence, as well as in scores.
Shelley: From the beginning of the year, we all had a different feeling about this year, or at least all the upperclassmen had a different feeling about this team. We were really prepared, really in shape, really fit, ready to go from the get-go. We weren't nervous about any of the routines that we put out. If the upperclassmen have that belief, I think the underclassmen jump right on board and follow what everyone else's is doing. Our confidence just stems from our preparation. It's kind of an intangible unexplainable feeling I think that we all have.
Dani: There's a mutual trust this year among everyone on the team that everyone's going to hit, and you know you're going to hit.
Q: When something happens, such as when Allyse Ishino hurt her ankle last week, do you feel you can adjust, or is that something that can affect the team?
Shelley: In our last home meet, we put out a lot of our people that had not recently been in the lineups and we rested Weedge (Ishino) on two events, we rested Dani, and I got to rest a little bit. So, we put in other people in our lineups and they performed beautifully, just as well as what others had been doing since the beginning.
It gave us confidence that no matter who we put in we were going to get the same scores as our top lineup. Just know that every single person we put up is going to give us a 9.8 gives us that confidence that when someone goes down, we have another person to step in and get a 9.8 or better. I don't think it's going to affect us. We know that she'll be back when we need her and we have other people who can step in. Shona and Kristina are really great gymnasts and they're contributing as freshman. And it's another theme of our team that we always have each other's backs. We talk about that from the preseason on.
Q: Last year, the final rotation was always the toughest. This year, it's the strongest, no matter what event it is.
Dani: Last year, we had a different mentality going into the last rotation than we do this year. I don't know exactly what the difference is or what changed.
Shelley: Last year, we talked a lot about hitting all 24 routines and how that would help us to win a meet or get to our goal. This year, we don't talk about that at all. We talk about one routine, one thing at a time, one person staying in the moment. A lot of times, we'll break to `One.' It's about living each moment of the meet. Coming down to the last event, our team is really competitive. We don't let what's going on around us affect us. But when we know we have to step up. It's the nature of our team that we do.
Dani: It's more of an exciting feeling going to the last event this way, rather than, `Oh my gosh, I hope we don't screw this up.'
Shelley: We've been down a lot going into the last event, or next-to-last event. We don't pay attention to the scores, but sometimes you hear it. It's like, `You know what? We've done it before and we'll do it again. We're the best team in the country on beam.' We tell ourselves that. And going into that on the last event, it's just confidence-building to know that we can win the meet on the last event.
Q: Can you talk about the beam? It requires the most concentration and focus, and has been a great strength with this year's team.
Dani: Everyone in the lineup has the potential to score 9.9 or better, but the key really is confidence. We're confident in everyone we put out there. I really think that's the thing that makes a great beam team, your attitude and your confidence on the event.
Shelley: It helps that we have a lot of people that have competed on beam in the past. A lot of our lineup is upperclassmen and I think something that Kristen does really well is she teaches us how to do beam in college. It's completely different for me than I did in club. We have cue words, we count. So, we just zone out and do our thing when we get up there. She's really good about teaching us to have a routine that we do every time in our heads and before. That really helps. Everybody is doing the same thing every time so it doesn't matter what we they throw at us in the gym. We can put the beam in the hall. We can have the volleyball players come in and scream at the top of their lungs. We have people lying under the beam.
Q: When you are heckled, whether in practice or a meet, do you hear what is being said?
Shelley: The girls are cheering or screaming at the top of their lungs, but you'll hear occasional things. You can tune out the volleyball players, they're just being loud. We have a little bit harder time when the guy gymnasts heckle us because they get personal and like to make comments that make us laugh or stuff like that.
Dani: I think it's good because it prepares us for everything. I remember on the last meet on beam I heard the Arizona guys heckling me in the middle of my routine, which is a little different because I've never heard that before. But it didn't really affect me that much.
Shelley: I noticed that too before I went they were, like, blowing wind like they were trying to blow people off the beam, and moving their arms and stuff. I noticed it before, so when I got on the beam I made it a point to look at them in the middle of routine, kind of like we do in the gym. I think it really does prepare us for any situation. There are things we do that we think we will never encounter in a meet, but you never know.
Q: Can you zone out the crowd when you're competing?
Shelley: I think it's different for everybody. Some people don't hear anything. I usually hear things, just because I think it's funny, so I like to listen to it a little bit.
Dani: I'm the kind of person who doesn't hear anything. When I'm on the beam, I hear nothing.
Shelley: I like to listen to it and make faces. It's just different for different people.
Q: Being captains, does that change anything in your approach? Do you feel like you have added responsibilities?
Dani: Not necessarily. Last year, I was in some of the captains' meetings too. I still considered myself one of the leaders on the team. I acknowledge that, yes, I have the title. We always say that everyone can be a leader on this team and I feel like I've been working on it ever since I came here. I try not to think of it as an added responsibility.
Q: Do you make sure to provide encouragement to the freshmen who have been injured, to keep them involved without feeling like outsiders?
Shelley: Another thing that's special about our team is we have such a bond as sisters and as friends. We naturally do that. We reach out to people. The veterans who were injured before, like Ally Skoly who has been through it, reach out to the freshmen a lot. Everybody's going to struggle with that. We all want to be competing, we want to be there helping our team. They all do a great job in the gym. They put on their game face and give whatever they can. They may have their down days where they're struggling with therapy, but it doesn't really show in the gym because they know their job is to give everything that they can however they can. It's just part of our culture to make them feel like they have a role.
Kristen's always told us that whether you're competing or not you're always contributing. Weedge (Ishino) has repeated time and again that she was an important person when she couldn't compete as a freshman because she had everybody's mats down. She knew what everybody needed. She got everything that they needed. We start out the year letting everybody know that their role is important. It's part of the culture of our team. It's very different than other teams where you're injured and standing on the sideline.
Q: For the most part, you've had everybody travel to the road meets even if they're injured and can't compete.
Shelley: We like to have everybody travel. The one meet where we didn't have two people, we noticed that we were struggling to cheer as loud as we normally do. We were missing their voices, we were missing what they give to the team. We hate when we have to leave people at home. Everybody contributes whether it's the energy in the locker room or moving the mats, which is something I like about this team too. I have friends on other teams where if you're injured or not competing in at least one event you don't travel. I know they always feel a little disconnected from that team.
Q: Now that you're in the final year of being a competitive gymnast, are you ready to stop? Is your body telling you it's time or do you feel like you can do it another 20 years?
Dani: Not another 20 years. I've been mentally preparing for it. I know it's my last year. I'm ready. When the time comes and the season's over I won't have any regrets.
Shelley: I'd agree with that. I'm always going to have a love for this sport, but I'm ready to move on in my life and step into a new world. It'll be a big change for us. It's been part of our identity for 18 years. We'll no longer be able to say, `I'm a gymnast.' We've talked about it and I think we're ready to go on to more school or whatever we choose to do next. Of course, we'll miss this, but the experiences we take from this we'll never forget.
Q: What kind of a toll has it taken on you physically? Do you notice a difference at this age compared to when you were freshmen?
Dani: I don't know if it's affected me. I definitely feel different than when I was 10 to, how old am I, 22? It doesn't really affect me that much in every day life.
Shelley: We have our aches and pains. As we get older in college gymnastics, Kristen knows that and lets us cut back a little bit on numbers and just do more quality turns. As freshmen, that's weird. `We'll never have to do less turns. We'll be fine. We can do all the numbers.' And now we're like, `I guess my body does kind of hurt.' I always thought the seniors did that so they could help out more or whatever. It is interesting, our bodies probably do hurt a little bit more. But when we're done, we'll be fine. We're both pretty injury free, knock on wood, and have been and hopefully will continue to be.
Q: When you watch your video tributes on the scoreboard at Maples Pavilion on Sunday, what's that going to be like?
Shelley: We were just talking about this last night. Somebody asked me if was going to get really emotional and I said, `Dani, are we going to get emotional? I hope we're not emotional.' You know, I don't think either of us has really thought about it. It hasn't really hit us that this is our last home meet. It's not our last competition, so it's not a big deal. We still have a ways to go with our team and a lot of goals to accomplish. Hopefully, it won't be super emotional. Of course, we'll miss competing at home in front of our friends from Stanford and having that support. Dani's not a very emotional person, so I don't think she's thought about it at all.
Dani: I mean, maybe I'll be emotional. I can't predict it.
If you have you own questions that you would like to ask Dani, Shelley, or fellow senior Allyse Ishino, feel free to do do so. Send your questions to David Kiefer at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly to the Stanford women's gymnastics Facebook page at this link. The answers will be posted on gostanford.com or the team's Facebook page.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics