Women's Gymnastics Season in Review: The Sleeping Giant
Upbeat finish all in the plan for Stanford
Senior captain Alyssa Brown completed her career in style.
May 24, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - The euphoria of the weekend and the season continued to resonate with the Stanford women's gymnastics team as it found itself with a long layover on the return from the national championships in Duluth, Ga.
"None of us wanted it to end," Stanford coach Kristen Smyth said.
So, they gathered in a circle, right there in the airport. Every one of them. And talked about their spectacular end to the season.
And what a season it was.
Though Stanford had established itself as one of the nation's elite over the past decade, the Cardinal remained an outsider to the national top-10 throughout the season. But Stanford stuck to a plan and shocked the college gymnastics world by seemingly coming out of nowhere to capture a fourth-place national finish, and come within only 0.35 of a point of an NCAA title.
Stanford scored 197.500 points at the NCAA Super Six final to far outscore its season-best of 196.825 coming into the weekend. Along the way, seven Stanford gymnasts earned All-America honors - the most in school history and more than half of the team's roster - while the team registered its highest-ever score at the NCAA Championships.
"It gives me goosebumps," Smyth said, weeks after the season ended.
Stanford now has three finishes among the top four in the nation since 2008 - one of only four programs in the country that can claim that feat - and six Super Six appearances in the past 11 years. But to accomplish those things required a journey, and some careful planning.
With early-season injuries and lessons learned from a disappointing finish to the 2011 season, the Cardinal coaching staff mapped out a plan to deliver a top performance by nationals. It took patience, and some results were sacrificed as gymnasts were held out and start values were minimized. Plus, the team would have to rely heavily on five freshmen, and two others who missed the previous season with injuries.
But as the season progressed, it was obvious the plan was working. Senior captain Alyssa Brown, who severely injured her shoulder during the summer, was limited to one event for most of the season. But Brown extended herself to the bars, and the vault - winning an NCAA regional title in the latter.
The same was true with freshman Ivana Hong, a highly-decorated recruit who suffered a November ankle injury. She, too, was limited to one event - the vault in her case - for most of the season. But by the Super Six, she produced Stanford's best all-around score of the season while earning All-America honors in two events.
And, most spectacularly, Amanda Spinner, a sophomore who hadn't competed in two years because of injuries, made her collegiate debut halfway through the season and became a rock on the beam, winning a regional title and earning first-team All-America honors and a fourth-place NCAA finish.
She was one of three first-team All-Americans, including NCAA bars runner-up Samantha Shapiro, a freshman, and Hong, who was fourth on beam. All were in their first year of collegiate competition.
Risky decisions had to be made, and in each case, the selflessness of the gymnasts themselves allowed those strategies to work.
For example, before the NCAA team preliminaries, the coaches chose to lead off with senior Jenny Peter on bars, though she hadn't competed for five weeks. But Peter responded with a solid 9.8 to spark the lineup to a strong score to help qualify for the final.
Before the Super Six, the coaches asked the gymnasts for their opinion on whether to go with "heavy hitters" such as Ashley Morgan on beam, an event she had struggled with, and Hong on bars, though the freshman had never competed in the event as a collegian. The idea was to take advantage of the potential for high scores instead of settling for safe scores. In both cases, all the gymnasts, even those to be replaced, endorsed the moves.
Morgan (9.825) and Hong (9.875) produced solid scores and set the tone for an aggressive approach that enabled Stanford to produce the marks it had lacked most of the year.
In the process, Stanford did something that few teams ever do: "We reached our full potential," Smyth said. "And, in many ways, we exceeded everybody's expectations except for ours."
The plan, presented to the team months before, had worked. The "sleeping giant," as Peter had earlier described, had indeed awoken. It was something to behold.
Nowhere was that more clear than on the final rotation of the Super Six, the vault - indeed the final rotation of the season. Ashley Morgan started it off with a 9.725, and the marks began to escalate from there, with 9.85's for Pauline Hanset, and Nicole Pechanec, followed by a series of 9.95's for Hong, Brown, and Nicole Dayton.
The team score of 49.550 was the second-best in school history on the vault and was the perfect finish to season that fulfilled, and perhaps exceeded, the team's expectations.
"We'll look back and say, `there's nothing we would have changed or done differently,' " Smyth said. "And that's a great feeling."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics
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Each Stanford gymnast was asked to offer a single reflection of the season. Here are their responses:
Alyssa Brown: "I think one of my favorite gymnastics moments was our beam rotation at Pac-12's. I remember coming into the competition wanting to win so badly, but I knew that we would need to perform our absolute best. We were starting on beam, which I would say is the toughest event to start on. Being in the back of the lineup I didn't watch the girls ahead of me, but I saw each score come up: 9.9, 9.9, 9.9 ... I was getting the chills, I still get the chills thinking about it. We were all so excited and I think we finally believed that we were a team that could easily be at the top at the end of the year."
Nicole Pechanec: "One of my favorite moments was at nationals, at breakfast before Super Six. Every other team was at the breakfast buffet as well, and they were all sitting sporadically in the restaurant. There was a side private room that seats eight but all 13 if us naturally decided to sit together. That just showed how we naturally turned/leaned on each other. We could not have accomplished what we did this year without that need of having each other around. The icing on the cake during that breakfast was when Alex found out they brought out blueberries and said "Oh yes, maybe I can make this oatmeal taste like something." I laughed and cried at the same time. It just showed how much we have sacrificed this year, not because we had to but because we wanted to, and still had this sort of humor about it."
Jenny Peter: "A special memory of the season is always finding this team in a circle facing inward to each other. We circle up for a cheer, a pep talk and to play games at meets, but we also find ourselves making a circle waiting around at the airport, hanging out . . . really any situation. This circle is reflective of this team and how we are always focused on every member!
"Another special memory of the season was how loud we cheered after vault. The joy on our faces outweighed the national champions' reactions - you would have thought that we were the ones with the trophy, but we knew that being fourth-place champions was a Champion."
Nicole Dayton: "Looking back, I think that it's amazing how open and comfortable this team was with one another right from the start. At the retreat (our second or third day together), we each shared three pictures that represented something meaningful in our lives. It was really special how willing each person was to share so many different stories and was one of the most distinct bonding moments I can remember from early on."
Ashley Morgan: "My favorite anecdote would have to be our meeting the night before prelims. As a team, we sat and shared one moment from the year that we held deeply in our hearts. Many of us couldn't recall just one, and the truly special thing was that every story shared, every person on the team could recall the exact moment it happened. Whether it was something as simple as a dance move or as large as a nailed competition routine, every person remembered, chimed in and laughed. Those simple moments that we thought were insignificant at the time, turned into beautiful memories that will be forever ingrained in our hearts. We laughed, and we cried, but the truly beautiful part was that it was the first time in my collegiate career that I knew without a doubt I was amongst family."
Lucy Meyer: "Although there are many many moments to choose from, one of my favorites was the final one. On vault at Super Six, each and every person was nailing their vault, building our excitement. I remember completely losing my voice at this point because I was so incredibly excited and when Dayton landed her vault, the last one, we all lost it. There were tears of joy, screaming, and many many hugs. We were so loud that a camera man came over and talked to one of our volunteer assistant coaches and asked her if we had won. She told us that she said no, that we were all just proud of our performance, but he insisted that we must have won. The crying, the hugging, the screaming, the being together is truly what this team was about.
"In addition to this, we were the last team in the arena on that wonderful day just taking pictures and spending time together. That type of behavior is definitely not anything shy of ordinary since we simply love being together inside and outside the gym. This is something that makes our team so unbelievably special -- We work hard together, face challenges together, celebrate together, and spend time enjoying each other's presence."
Shona Morgan: "I'd have to say a special memory of the season was on the final rotation of Super Six, vault. I was helping to set the board so I was down at the end next to Jenny and Spinner. It was so exciting seeing such amazing vaults, one after the other, but we weren't allowed to cheer because we were near the judges. It was probably the hardest time I've ever had trying to be quiet. I just remember making eye contact with Jen and Spin and seeing the excitement and wonder in their faces as our vault team rocked out each vault, with amazing height and solid sticks. Not that we were surprised, it was just an amazing feeling to watch everything come together so perfectly, and so it was such a fitting end to the season."
Amanda Spinner: "Picking one moment that describes this season is a very hard thing to do. Every moment that is particularly memorable all had one thing in common: They all left me with chills because I realized how incredible this team is. No matter how hard I try to put into words how much this team means to me, it never seems to come out exactly right. I have never worked so hard in my entire life but I can truly say that it was worth all worth it. Each person on this team made sacrifices and brought everything they had into the gym. It's hard to dedicate so much of your time and energy to something, but it's easy when you enjoy what you do and have a purpose for doing it. This team is unlike any other. Each person pushes themselves to their max so their is no doubt in your mind when you step on to that equipment that you, as well, plan on leaving everything you have out there.
"We set out on a mission this year and we planned to be the "sleeping giant." We knew we had potential, but we knew it was going to take time. We stuck to the plan and it worked out EXACTLY as we planned. We improved up until the very last day of the year when it mattered most. At Super Six, we were making lineup changes to reach that last peak. We put in Ivana who had never competed bars because we all knew what she was capable of, and she hit a beautiful routine. We put in Ashley because she can score big on beam and she too hit a beautiful routine. Then on floor we put in Sami and again she hit one of the best routines she has done. They may not have received the scores they could have gotten but I and every person on SWG were truly so proud. The plan for Super Six again worked.
To me, we won that meet, no question about it. We may have gotten fourth place but in our hearts we accomplished what we set out to do. Looking back on that day we couldn't have done anything differently. So many emotions went through our minds that moment after Nicole Dayton nailed her vault. We were so happy and proud to be a member of the Stanford gymnastics team. I will never forget the moment when we celebrated by raising our Reese's peanut butter cups to cap off an incredible journey with an incredible group of girls.
"I also have two other memories I wanted to share:
"No. 1) The night before the regionals we all tried to get Pauline to sing because she has such a great voice. She started singing "A Moment Like This" by Kelly Clarkson, and Peach then joined in. Then our whole team decided to start slow dancing in pairs and got in a line. We all started belting out the rest of the lyrics as our coaches watched. That moment was incredible, and although it sounds like it was simply a funny moment, that was one of the most memorable moments all year. The hard work we put in all year is worth it when you know that everybody else by your side is fighting for the same thing that you want so bad, and a cherry on top is the fact that we enjoy every minute of it with each other. That was one of those moments that makes you step back and look around at the people who are by your side and make you realize how lucky you are to have them.
"No. 2) Throughout the season, nobody on the outside could see the potential that this team had. We were never put in the spotlight, but that never stopped us. One of the most memorable moments this season came at one of the biggest arenas we competed in but most likely the smallest crowd. This truly exemplified the fact that the only motivation this team needed was each other. The last rotation on floor gave us all goosebumps as we started to show what we were capable of. We hit all six routines scoring two 9.925s. As the routines went on we jumped higher and higher cheering our teammates on, living each routine. The feeling we all felt was pure bliss. We were competing on podium and the excitement compared to that at NCAAs. It only took 13 of us to light up that enormous arena. It sounds cheesy, but the best way I can describe how we all felt during that rotation is that there were 13 hearts beating as one, 13 minds with one goal, and 13 people performing each routine together. That for me was the moment we started to peak and we all realized how good we really are (because our team tends to be pretty humble). And not only did we realize our talent, but that day we realized truly how much fun we have together and how much this team meant to all of us."
Alex Archer: "When we were in Utah for Pac 12s, we had a team activity the night before the competition. We almost always had a team activity on travel meets, if we could fit it in, but this activity turned into one of my favorite memories of all time.
"We had a SWG talent show, no specific instructions, but we had to split into 3 groups and give some sort of performance before the coaches and team. Theses groups included a hilarious spoof on The Hunger Games that incorporated the Pac 12 teams, a corny magic show with various acts, and a dance and song performance to `Call Me Maybe'. The performance to `Call Me Maybe' (which was adopted mid-season as the team song) ended with freshman, Pauline Hanset, singing a solo of part of the song. After she finished, the whole team begged her to sing more because unlike most of us, she could actually sing, and she sung beautifully. All year the team had tried to get her to sing in front of us, but she always became too flustered and would decline. This time though, she finally felt comfortable enough to sing any song in front us, so after much debate and trials with other songs, we picked `A Moment Like This', by Kelly Clarkson. Senior, Nicole Pechanec agreed to sing it with her, because she also had a good voice (when she wanted to use it).
"And so there we were, 11 girls and 3 coaches in a semi circle facing our two teammates. We started to play the background music and Paul and Peach's voice filled the conference room with a harmony that brought tears to everyone's eyes. I remember my fellow freshman, Ivana Hong, jokingly holding out her hand to me in a gesture to dance, but I grabbed it and we started to dance with uncontrollable laughter until the entire team was on their feet dancing in pairs, switching up and enjoying the pure joy and happiness of our team. Paul and Peach were on the last verse of the song and all of a sudden we found ourselves with our arms around each other's shoulders and swaying while their last notes swirled the room, putting a smile on every single person's face. When they finally finished singing, they turned around to face us only to be embraced in a giant group hug of 13 girls, filled with cheering and sincere gratitude for their performance and for this team. A team that was so unique in itself because we had discovered so much more than just how to compete together. We had become a family in each other and that realization made us so much stronger than any other team out there, who could never break that amazing bond inside us.
"That night, we were living in the moment and I swear I think time stopped for us so that we could enjoy every ounce of it.
"After that night, I think we realized it didn't matter where the judges thought we belonged, because when we later took our 4th place finish at the 2012 NCAA's Super Six, we knew that in our hearts, we had just won the whole thing."
Pauline Hanset: "There are so many amazing stories about this team that it is difficult to pick one ...
I guess one of my favorite moments would have to be our very last vault rotation at Super Six. We had already been consistent and good on bars, beam, and floor, and we could have kept that pace up, but instead we went beyond good; we were great on vault and ended the season with a bang. I remember sticking, excited out of my mind, and then Ivie, Brownie, and Daytona sticking right after me and everyones' emotions going wild!! I can honestly say that was one of the happiest moments of my life. That final rotation just describes our team. We go above and beyond in our technique, our grace, our love for the sport, and finally our love for each other. This team is one that I will never forget and one that I will love forever."
Ivana Hong: "There are so many moments from this year that have been absolutely amazing, but there is one moment that stands out in my mind the most. It was at Pac12's in Utah, the night before the competition and we had a team activity. The team activity was to make up a skit and perform it in from of the entire team and coaches. Everyone's skits were so funny! The best moment though was when we asked Pauline to sing for us because we heard how awesome of a singer she was and we all wanted to hear it! Nicole Pechanec joined in with Pauline to sing "A Moment Like This" by Kelly Clarkson which was just the perfect song. As Pauline and Nicole were singing wonderfully a couple of us girls started to dance together and soon it was a dance party. You could clearly feel that there was so much love and joy in the room for each other, the situation, and our sport."
Samantha Shapiro: "Notwithstanding the success our team experienced together at the NCAA national championships, my favorite moment this year would still have to be at the regional championships on beam, our last event of the competition. We had a fall so the pressure was on to hit each routine in order to qualify to nationals. The whole team held hands, our eyes glued on the beam competitors, supporting each of them through every skill and living through their routines. I had never before felt so spent from routines that I wasn't even executing. Our team was overwhelmed with pure excitement and ultimate cohesiveness. It was an amazing, uniting, unforgettable feeling. Oh, and then we made it to nationals."
Rebecca Wing: "There are so many memories from this year, but one in particular that stands out is the night before Super Six. We were all in the hotel and we had just finished running through our visuals and everyone was buzzing with a mixture of excitement and nerves. Kristen asked us to sit in a circle and we went around and each told our favorite memory from this year. It was such a great moment and really made us realize how special this team is!"
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The following is a rundown on honors accumulated by the team and individuals from the 2012 season:
Team Fourth-place NCAA finish Sixth NCAA Super Six appearance Highest NCAA Championships score in school history (197.500) Closest margin to first place at Super Six in school history (0.350) Highest team score since 2008 (197.500) Scored 49.550 on vault, second-highest in school history Fourth NCAA top-4 finish, all since 2004 Five NCAA top-10 finishes in six years Is one of four programs with at least three top-four finishes since 2008 Ninth NCAA top-10 finish Nine NCAA Championship appearances in 12 years Seventh consecutive season with 20 or more victories (23-12) Seven All-Americans, most in school history Nine All-America honors, most since 2007 73 All-America honors since 2002 Three first-team All-Americans 29th consecutive NCAA regional appearance Three NCAA Champaign Regional champions Two Pac-12 individual champions Three All-Pac-12 selections Six Pac-12 All-Academic selections
Alyssa Brown Cardinal Award winner as team's gymnast of the year Team captain Second-team All-America, vault NCAA Champaign Regional champion, vault Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention Team season-best score on balance beam (9.925) Member of vault lineup with season-best team-event score (49.550)
Nicole Dayton Member of vault lineup with season-best team-event score (49.550)
Pauline Hanset Team Most Improved award winner Member of vault lineup with season-best team-event score (49.550)
Ivana Hong First-team All-America, balance beam Second-team All-America, vault NCAA balance beam fourth-place Pac-12 champion, vault All-Pac-12 second team, vault Team season-best score on vault (9.975) Team season-best score in all-around (39.475) Member of vault lineup with season-best team-event score (49.550)
Ashley Morgan Second-team All-America, floor exercise Pac-12 champion, floor exercise All-Pac-12 first team, floor exercise All-Pac-12 first team, uneven bars Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention Tied for team season-high in victories (11) Team season-best on floor exercise (9.950) Member of vault lineup with season-best team-event score (49.550)
Shona Morgan Second-team All-America, uneven bars All-Pac-12 second team, balance beam Team Academic Award winner Pac-12 All-Academic first team Team season-best score on balance beam (9.925)
Nicole Pechanec Team MVP Team captain Second-team All-America, all-around Second-team All-America, floor exercise NCAA Champaign Regional champion, uneven bars Pac-12 All-Academic second team Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week (March 6) Tied for team season-high in victories (11) Team season-best score on uneven bars (9.950) Member of vault lineup with season-best team-event score (49.550)