UK’s gymnasts have each others’ backs – and their eyes ahead

Teammates surround Raena Worley after her floor routine during the University of Kentucky vs. Arkansas gymnastics meet on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. UK won 197.000-196.675. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Natalie Parks

Achievement unlocked for Kentucky gymnastics.

In their Friday night meet against Arkansas, the Cats catapulted into the second half of the season by posting 13 individual career highs and a total score of 197.000 – their best performance of the season.

Returner Cally Nixon said hitting 197.000 was a goal of the team’s juniors. If the Cats can continue to score that high in their three remaining meets, they could replace the lower scores for the first half of the season since gymnastics tallies only the top four performances.

UK’s season high was buoyed by a career night from junior Josie Angeny, who took home the all-around and two of the team’s four event titles.

Head coach Tim Garrison said the win was “validating”, especially following a bye week and narrow loss to Alabama to close out the first half of Kentucky’s eight-meet stretch.

Friday’s victory was a matter of execution for UK’s gymnasts. They fell short by .375 in their last meet against Alabama, though sophomore Raena Worley said she felt like it was a strong performance.

“The only reason we didn’t win is because we didn’t stick anything,” said standout freshman Bailey Bunn.

Worley said Garrison took the team through the statistics multiple times to see where they could have made up over a point.

“There’s a renewed emphasis on those little things, and really paying attention to the details that are going to get us to where we need to be. We can’t compete nationally, we can’t compete this conference unless you can do that well,” Garrison said, since the gymnasts have essentially cut all major errors.

Paying attention to the details was enough to earn Kentucky the win against no. 5 Arkansas, its highest ranked opponent to date.

Multiple gymnasts stuck the landing across all four apparatuses, which was more than enough to overcome Arkansas’s struggles on the beam where the Razorbacks dropped below 49.00.

Garrison said it was a team effort to win. As is typical for the group, each athlete has a role to play.

“Everybody has a shot at doing what they’re here to train to do,” Nixon said. Only two gymnasts, Bunn and Angeny, competed on all four apparatuses Friday night.

UK’s gymnasts say an equal opportunity to compete is what makes the team tick.

“I feel like the team also has a really good dynamic of everybody is fighting for their own spot, but like as much as they’re fighting for their own spot, they want someone else to compete for the same spot with them and try to add it to,” Worley said.

Part of that competition comes from this year’s big freshman class who are eager to leave their mark. But that competition is as friendly as it is fierce.

“I feel this team is the closest that I’ve ever been, like, I can trust these girls, so much with like gymnastics with life, I can I have a shoulder to lean on,” Worley said.

“I think that it’s been very nice to have the upperclassmen support us, and not be rude to us because we’re freshmen,” Bunn said. “They really like open their arms to us and like show us the ways.”

Angeny said mentoring younger gymnasts has helped her get more comfortable with her own performance.

“I told him just to clear their mind and have fun out there because that’s the whole point of college athletics, and that’s why we came here that’s why everyone came to watch so that’s the biggest thing I always tell them is, you earn the spot, have fun with it, don’t stress about it,” Angeny said after Friday’s meet.

Supportive teammates have made all the difference this year, as the gymnasts – like all students – grapple with the pandemic and its accompanying struggles.

“You want to be in the right mindset for gymnastics but then you’re in the mindset to follow

the rules that are set and you’re trying to make sure that you’re making the right choices and you’re balanced in school,” Worley said. “It definitely is a little bit more of a mental strain, but it’s gotten like we’ve gotten used to it.”

Nixon said staying safe is the top priority. Bunn, who had COVID-19 at the beginning of the year, added gymnastics has been a way to focus while everything else falls apart.

“We’re still in the gym at 7 a.m. lifting weights and we’re still going to practice whenever we can because we never know when it could be taken away from us,” Bunn said. “So it was definitely a struggle, still a struggle because we don’t know if we’re going to be able to finish the season or not, but we just like keep getting in there every day and working as hard as we can because we love the sport and this is what we want to do.”

COVID-19 has brought changes to gymnastics just as it has to everything else. One aspect most affected by the pandemic has been the environment at Kentucky’s meets, which are known for having entertainment and enthusiastic fans.

“The crowd really does bring the energy and all that stuff so to have that limited it’s weird, but Bailey said perfectly like our team really brings the energy. We motivate each other,” Nixon said.

Bunn recounted a story about meeting two young fans in the stands who had driven hours to see UK’s gymnasts.

“I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is like crazy.’ I’ve never had anyone just want to come and watch like me do gymnastics, so it was really nice to see that they’re supporting us, even with COVID going on.”

Changes have come within the team too, especially in regard to how they support each other.

“We can’t really like hug each other after like we stick something. Even though Cally pretty much does every time,” Bunn said. “But now we’ve really adapted to it and we are starting to get more comfortable with all the rules.”

Worley said she thinks the adaptions have made the team stronger.

“Not being able to fully support each other after a skill or run up the same as we had with the same enthusiasm, we have been able to build off of the weird things that happened, and just make it work,” Worley said.

All of the changes and the precarious season have given UK’s gymnasts a new appreciation for the sport.

“It really has made at least me personally, try to learn to really appreciate every moment that I’ve had out on the floor and out with the girls,” Worley said.

Angeny shared a similar sentiment following Friday’s meet.

“It made me realize like I only have two more years here, and I only have so much time with gymnastics left, and this is the thing I’ve loved my entire life so it really hit me like a truck.” The realization inspired her to double down on training, a change Garrison said is evident in her improvement.

Angeny cumulative 39.50 on Friday night was a career high – and also meant that she dropped an average of .125 points on each event.

“I feel so much different, and I think the biggest thing that has made the difference is my team trust me now, and outside the gym and inside the gym,” Angeny said.

Returners like Angeny, Nixon and Worley remember the 2020 season being abruptly shut down when COVID-19 struck the country.

“It’s definitely like a wake-up call that you just never know what can happen. Anything can happen at any moment so you just got to have fun with it,” Nixon said.

Kentucky was on its way to a meet in West Virginia when the season was called off. Nixon was asleep on the bus and woke up to find the team still in Kentucky.

“We were preparing like that whole week, like going hard, because we knew that we had to hit the competition that was coming up because the last competition we had didn’t go as we planned,” Nixon said. “It was crazy. I just honestly I did not expect it to end that fast.”

“I remember standing outside of the bus, before we left and like everybody was talking about the case and how it was like becoming a bigger deal,” Worley said, recalling how Garrison’s announcement just an hour later was a kind of “reality smack.”

The pandemic’s ripple effects played out for the gymnasts over the summer.

“I didn’t really have a gym to work in. Everything was shut down, so basically for me it was just kind of maintaining the skills that I have right now and just being more consistent with it,” Nixon said.

For Bunn, whose high school senior season was cut off midway through, the loss inspired her to come into college as strong as she could be. Now, she feels like Kentucky can finish what last year’s seniors never got to.

Bunn described Friday meets as a payday for the hard work put in during the week.

“Knowing that I’m not doing this for myself at all, I’m doing this for the team has been like such a change,” Bunn said. “It’s been so amazing, like I know I’m competing all-around but I don’t really care like for myself how I do, I only care about how I do for the team.”

As a collective, Kentucky notched its first 197.000 against Arkansas but also surpassed 49.000 on all four apparatuses earlier in the season against Alabama. But the gymnasts are quick to commend each other’s individual achievements, even over their own.

“Reyna won the last three all-around titles, let’s talk about that,” Nixon said after Bunn brought up Nixon’s 9.925 career high vault on Jan. 15.

Nixon won the vault event in all four of Kentucky’s matches before the bye week. Worley took home three all-arounds and two floor titles, adding another against Arkansas. The athletes agreed that they aren’t thinking about those honors when they’re competing.

“I don’t even remember like what I do. Like I just like it’s all a blur. Like I just do the vault and I just get so excited, that I don’t know what happens,” Nixon said.

What’s happened so far has been a season built on sisterhood and growth. What happens next? An away meet against no. 1 Florida on Friday, Feb. 19, where the team will aim to match its season high 197.000 – and maybe have a little fun along the way.