Gymnastics Cats 'Fight' Way to Sixth-Place National Finish
The NCAA National Gymnastics Semifinal was set. Fort Worth, Texas. Dickies Arena. Bright lights and biggest stage of the season with the top eight teams in the country left to compete for a national championship.
Less than 24 hours until the University of Kentucky Women’s Gymnastics team would march in on the national semifinal for the second time ever in program history, head coach Tim Garrison had addressed the team one last time the night before and had one message,
“Start the fight, continue the fight, finish the fight,” Garrison told his team.
This team phrase ran much deeper than just a one-time saying – it became the team’s motto and go-to in a time of strength.
“The saying worked for us because it was bigger than just gymnastics. It applied to life in general,” said volunteer assistant coach Anna Haigis. “This led to regionals and then onto nationals. Keeping the fight every step of the way.”
From the start of the season, Kentucky seemingly had the odds stacked against them. The season started with a tough loss to Ohio State, one that not many expected. Then, at the first home meet of the season, the Cats were able to get a massive victory over SEC rival LSU with a score of 197.125. In the process, the Cats set a program attendance record of 10,558 at the school’s annual Excite Night. Suddenly, Kentucky was climbing the national rankings fast.
However, that momentum was short lived as Kentucky went back on the road get upset by a lower ranked University of Georgia. Senior Raena Worley thinks she knows why that happened.
“Going into Georgia, we were extremely cocky and thought it was going to be an easy win,” Worley said. “Right after that , it was the defining moment of our season. We were embarrassed letting that happen and we had to change our mindset and fight the rest of the year to turn the season around.”
After that meet on January 20, Kentucky went on to break a school and program record, defeating the Alabama with a score of 197.825.
The success continued as the team was able to rattle off three more wins in the first three weeks of February. The team was able to break the scoring record once again by defeating Arkansas with a 197.875.
Team 49, the title that the team had taken on, as it was the 49th team in program history, had seen success starting to grow. But as a team, they knew they wanted to achieve more and get over the hump to make it Dickies Arena.
“Team 49 is so much more than just a number,” said junior Hailey Davis. “Obviously, it is the number of years we have had gymnastics at Kentucky. But are sisters and have each other’s back no matter what.”
As the regular season ended, the Cats wrapped up the first unbeaten home slate since 1984 and finished with a 10-3 record overall, including 5-2 in SEC play. Team 49 also had individual success, with 17 individual records being broken in regular season competition.
Kentucky finished fourth in the SEC Championships and headed into the Norman Regional at Oklahoma. The team had a tough test with three of the top 16 seeds in the country (Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio State) to compete against. With qualifying for the national semifinal on the line and the fourth rotation going on, Kentucky had to sit and wait for other programs to finish their routines.
“It was the longest wait of my life, waiting for that final score to come across the big screen,” said junior Isabella Magnelli. “I have never been so overwhelmed with emotions. A part of me was a sense of relief but I was also so happy to finally get over the finish line and do it with my team. We had been written off all year long and to be able to prove everyone wrong after the heartbreak of being so close last year. It is a moment and an emotion I will never forget.”
The Cats came up short in Fort Worth, finishing sixth in the country but not qualifying for the Final Four. Despite that, this season moment for the Kentucky gymnastics program.
“I told this to the multiple times and just reiterated it with the analogy of like a high school dance,” said head coach Tim Garrison. “You must be in the room for a bit until asked to dance. And this was the first year we were able to dance with a shot to contend. The exposure to that level of competition was more relevant than ever if we want to contend for national titles and be a national powerhouse.”
Bonded together by grittiness and determination to accomplish goals, Kentucky finished the year with the highest ranking of all time, and with four All -American selections. Team 49 had the dreams of at Dickies Arena and stopped at nothing to reach that destination that they set out to do at the beginning of the year.
“We knew moments like this were coming we were able to come together as a group and buy into one common goal,” said sophomore Makenzie Wilson. “We talked about the fight, and we were very good at it. We had no pressure. We knew we could go out and do our gymnastics and compete and fight, it would work out. shocked a lot of people.”
And that had everything to do with the fight the team showed all season long.