It may be a cliché, but it’s certainly not a stretch to say that LSU’s Ashleigh Gnat was born to be a gymnast.
After all, there probably wasn’t much of a chance that Gnat wouldn’t follow in her talented parents’ footsteps not long after she began to walk around their Florida home.
Her dad, Ray, was an All-American gymnast at LSU. Her mother, Joan, was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.
Both are coaches, which means Ashleigh was influenced very early in her life to join the family business.
LSU coach D-D Breaux couldn’t be happier — because Gnat, who got her start in gymnastics as a 2-year-old, blossomed into an All-American as a freshman a year ago while becoming a high-end performer in three events.
This season, Gnat has added a fourth event to her repertoire and become another solid all-around weapon for third-ranked LSU, which will compete Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championships in Duluth, Georgia.
Breaux went into this season with two of the nation’s best all-arounders in seniors Rheagan Courville and Jessie Jordan, but picked up a third in the third meet when Gnat stepped up and filled in on bars for freshman Myia Hambrick, who was ill for a competition with Missouri.
While it’s not her best event, Gnat recorded a 9.70 that night. Added to the three events she had been doing since her freshman season, she finished with an all-around score of 39.325.
But that was just a start. She scored a 39.550 twice and on March 6 had a career-best 39.725.
“It was just awesome to be able to step in for the opportunity,” Gnat said after the first all-around performance of her college career. “Myia was out sick and we just needed to fill in some blank spots. I was able to fill that one (bars). That’s what this team is about: being ready when someone can’t compete.”
Gnat wanted to do that last season, her first with the Tigers, but she settled for competing in vault, beam and floor exercise.
“You never really know what you’re walking into coming into a new experience,” Gnat said. “This team has so many talented gymnasts, so you walk in expecting to do whatever you can for the team. It’s not about what you want to do, or are capable of doing, it’s about what’s best for the team and what our best lineup was going to be.”
You can say that turned out pretty well for LSU.
Gnat, who is nicknamed “Bugs,” finished 12th in the vault to earn All-America honors at the NCAA individual event finals last April after helping the Tigers to a program-best third-place team finish the night before. She was also a second-team All-American on floor exercise.
She turned in back-to-back scores of 9.90 on vault in the national semifinals and Super Six finals, and also had a 9.90 in the semifinals on floor — her favorite event — before posting a 9.875 in the Super Six.
While the competitor in Gnat wanted to be in all four events, she knew she had to bide her time and turned it into a learning experience.
“Last year was awesome,” she said. “It was a major learning experience, but it was good because I was able to learn from Rheagan and Jessie and (senior) Kaleigh (Dickson). You could see how they just handled themselves in any event, and I tried to replicate that and stay calm and collected.”
She also got some of that from her older sister, Jeana, an NCAA champion and All-American at Alabama from 2001-04.
Since adding that fourth event in late January, Gnat has continued to compete consistently at a high level with 11 scores of 9.90 or better after producing 14 a year ago.
She’s had career highs this season in vault (9.975), bars (9.875), beam (9.95) and floor (9.975), with the vault and floor scores coming against Minnesota two weeks ago that gave her a career-high all-around score of 39.725.
But Gnat, who ranks ninth in the nation on floor and 15th on beam, says she’s not doing it alone.
“My teammates, they’re so motivating and they push you every day,” she said. “It’s just exciting to be part of a team like this.”