One time. Just one time.
When Ashleigh Gnat was an LSU freshman, intimidated by the veteran gymnasts around her like Rheagan Courville, Lloimincia Hall and Jessie Jordan, her aspirations were even more diminutive than her 5-foot tall frame.
“I remember it being extremely overwhelming,” Gnat said. “The girls on the team at the time were so amazing. I remember thinking, ‘If I could just get one opportunity to compete, that would be an honor for me.’ ”
Some things have changed for Gnat over the past four years. Now, when she sits out a routine, it’s newsworthy. As a senior, she’s the face of No. 2 LSU, with 57 individual event wins, 11 All-America honors, eight perfect 10 scores and a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship this year.
Some things haven’t changed.
The honor code still abides.
“I still feel that way,” said Gnat, who leads LSU into Saturday’s SEC championship meet in Jacksonville, Florida. “Every time I get to compete, it’s an honor. It’s been an honor to be able to be part of something this big.”
Few athletes in any sport have come through LSU with as much patriotic fervor for the school as Gnat.
Tiger spirit? Gnat has that on tap. It’s almost as though, when she pads out onto the competition floor in her sequins and bare feet, she’s taking a stand for truth, justice and the LSU way.
Gnat laughs at the thought of wrapping herself in the LSU flag like Uncle Sam’s purple and gold niece or something. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel a responsibility to represent LSU at her best all the time.
She takes time away from the gym to paint, to sketch and to be a student, obviously; she's on track to graduate with a major in sports administration and a minor in business. Somehow she squeezes in side trips to New Orleans to watch her boyfriend, Tulane outfielder Jarret DeHart, play baseball. (They met at LSU when DeHart was a freshman with the Tigers.)
The Gnat on the floor in front of 10,000 fans in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, sparkling and bouncing and thumping her chest with delight, is the same Gnat who stops for selfies and signs posters for the future Ashleigh Gnats clamoring for her autograph.
Competitive gymnastics is a symbiotic meld of athleticism and image. And perhaps no one understands that better than Gnat.
“I would never want to tarnish the name of LSU or LSU gymnastics,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people who get to do that — a very small group of people who get to be part of something bigger than they are. It isn’t something to be tarnished. It’s something you should honor and respect.”
On a team of gymnasts notable for their athletic lineage — McKenna Kelley’s mom is gymnastics icon Mary Lou Retton; Kennedi Edney’s father, Tyus, played basketball at UCLA and in the NBA; Sarah Finnegan’s father, Don, was an All-America wrestler at Iowa State; and Lauren Li’s dad was a three-sport college athlete in China — Gnat stands out for her gymnastics roots.
Dad Ray was an All-America gymnast at LSU way back when the school had a men’s team. Mom Joan was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. And older sister Jeana Rice-Helms was an All-American at Alabama.
But despite her father’s Tiger ties, Gnat says her joie de LSU comes from coach D-D Breaux.
"That’s all from D-D," she said. "The way she’s passionate about LSU is the way I am about LSU.”
The relationship between coach and gymnast is one of mutual admiration.
“Every coach should have the opportunity to coach someone like that,” Breaux has said of Gnat more than once this season. “She’s the rudder. She really is. There’s never any clutter. She never brings anything into the gym that’s not all about the team and what’s going to make us better. We talk about putting rocks in your boat or throwing rocks out of your boat. There are no rocks. She’s strictly in the gym, all business, talking about what’s best for the team.”
On a team that purposely has no captain, the Tigers respond to Gnat’s influence.
“I want to be a leader just like her,” Edney said. “She’s very positive. She never shows she has a bad day. It’s good to see that and know you don’t have to be a Debbie Downer all the time.”
Though junior Myia Hambrick is pinned with the nickname “Mom” for her mature-beyond-her-years demeanor, fellow senior Shae Zamardi said that might apply to Gnat best.
“It’s been amazing,” said Zamardi, who has roomed with Gnat their entire college careers. “She’s always there if we need help with anything. She has a very mature personality. She’s always been a leader within our household. I’ve just watched her grow since freshman year. She’s like the mom of the team and the mom of the house.”
Breaux insists there is no internal drama with her squad, perhaps something that has to do with Gnat as well.
For her part, she cherishes the team that will bring down the curtain on a gymnastics career that began 17 years ago when Gnat was 5, bouncing around her parents' gymnastics facility back home in Lake Mary, Florida.
“I’m really glad it’s the last team I will be a part of, just because of the bond I have with these girls,” Gnat said. “They’re so easy to get along with. But it’s also something we work at, being able to have that open honesty: ‘Hey, I’m going to tell you this and you may not like how it sounds, but it’s for the best.’ People are so receptive to that. It’s so important to have that chemistry between teammates.
“The girls on this team are genuine and honest with each other. Those are two words you can barely find amongst girls, and there’s 15 of us. So it’s honestly amazing how we’ve been able to unite and work together for something much greater than ourselves.”
The Gnats have asked Ashleigh if she wants to return home and teach in their gym, but at least for now that isn’t her path. In the fall, she’ll begin working toward a master’s degree in kinesiology. Next season, she’ll help with LSU’s team in a still-to-be-determined role.
“Long term, I would like to be a college gymnastics coach,” she said. “I thought for a long time I would want to change. But the way I’ve experienced college gymnastics is something I want to continue in. I think this a critical time for student-athletes, and this is a great way to impact people.”
Maybe the freshman who just wanted to compete one time will one day be LSU’s coach, infecting her gymnasts with the same pride and passion in being a Tiger that she has had.