When she’s not vaulting or tumbling or, by her own admission, sleeping, you could well find LSU gymnast Julianna Cannamela baking.
“You name it,” she said, “I can make it.”
It goes back to her Italian roots and her home-schooled days in tiny Waxhaw, North Carolina.
“Growing up we weren’t allowed to eat anything out of a box,” Cannamela said. “All the kids in the neighborhood were eating SpaghettiOs out of a can, and we weren’t allowed to. So we made pasta from scratch, and Dad would make the meatballs.”
Being able to come up with something from scratch is a talent that served Cannamela well Jan. 19 against Alabama.
During warmups, sophomore all-arounder Kennedi Edney landed awkwardly and tweaked a knee. LSU coaches left Edney on uneven bars and beam but pulled her from vault and floor, two events in which the knees take a bigger pounding.
In went Cannamela, LSU’s first alternate, to lead off on vault, while the other five gymnasts in the lineup moved down a notch. But on floor, LSU’s coaches decided to gamble and put Cannamela in Edney’s anchor position.
“The last time I did floor was freshman year,” said Cannamela, a junior.
She couldn’t afford to fall this time. LSU had a comfortable lead on Alabama, but sophomore Ruby Harrold seated one of her tumbling passes on her floor routine and only scored an 8.925. The Tigers only needed a 9.175 from Cannamela to win the meet, an easy score for a collegiate gymnast — but it also meant she couldn’t afford to stumble.
“Thank God I didn’t know that,” Cannamela said, a wave of relief crossing her face even days afterward. “My head would have exploded.
“I was just so nervous. Someone asked me what I was thinking, and I didn’t even know.”
Teammates fortified Cannamela with messages of faith.
“You do this twice a day every day,” senior Myia Hambrick said. “You know how to do this.”
“This is just like intra-squad,” junior Sarah Finnegan said.
“You’re in this spot for a reason,” injured junior McKenna Kelley told her.
“It made me feel better to have them all saying, ‘Oh, she’s got it.’ I knew my team was counting on me. I’m not the same person I was freshman year.”
Cannamela said she didn’t hear anything as she performed. She didn’t see the sold-out crowd, itching to celebrate but anxious at the prospect of LSU blowing a meet to Alabama, which is the last team to beat the Tigers in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center way back in 2013.
One tumbling pass. Solid. Then another, aimed right at LSU great-turned-student assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat, standing on the corner of the floor. The floor anchor spot was Gnat’s domain the past couple of years. Now she could only watch as Cannamela tried to bring home victory.
“I thought I would have been thrown in there somewhere” after Edney’s injury, Cannamela said of the floor lineup. “But not sixth. Definitely not sixth. Ashley Gnat went sixth. I don’t have an Ashley Gnat routine. I don’t have a Kennedi Edney routine.”
The third pass. Cannamela took a deep breath, leaned in and charged. She flipped over and over into the air, stuck the last landing and then struck a pose on the mat, right toe pointed, right hand emulating a tiger claw. Almost before she could get up, Kelley ran to her and grabbed Cannamela in a joyful hug.
“I was so proud of her,” said Kelley, who shared the Southeastern Conference floor title with Gnat last year. “We needed that score, and she came through in the clutch.”
LSU coach D-D Breaux admitted after the meet she didn’t remember that Cannamela hadn’t competed on floor in two years. But Cannamela still had enough experience for the coach to feel comfortable enough to rely on her.
“You’ve got a pressure situation,, and you look over your shoulder and you’ve got a choice between Julianna and maybe a freshman,” Breaux said. “I’m happy to have a junior to put in that spot.”
Perhaps it was the pain Cannamela has endured that helped her handle the pressure of that alternate-turned-anchor role against Alabama.
It started, Jan. 9, 2017, three days after LSU’s season opener against Georgia.
“That was a bad day,” Cannamela said.
Practice was ending, but she had one last routine to perform. Cannamela never finished, tearing her left labrum, the ring of cartilage that surrounds the shoulder socket.
She would perform six more times that season, all on vault, but the shoulder needed major repair. She underwent offseason surgery and wasn't cleared to return to practice until 10 months after her injury, on Nov. 6.
Her shoulder will never be quite the same.
“I’m not as flexible,” Cannamela explained. “The doctors told me it wouldn’t be exactly the same as my other one. When my coaches ask me if I feel normal, I say it’s my new normal.”
Her willingness to do the work required to come back and contribute so quickly has been inspiring to Kelley, who was lost for this season with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon three weeks after Cannamela was cleared.
“We know how hard she works,” Kelley said. “She’s the alternate on every event. To be that ready at the beginning of the season considering how extreme her injury was speaks volumes about what this team means to her.”
As one of LSU’s top three scorers in both of her events against Alabama, Cannamela is likely to compete on vault and floor in Saturday’s Metroplex Challenge, as No. 2 LSU takes on No. 4 UCLA, No. 14 Washington and No. 28 North Carolina State in Fort Worth, Texas.
“She made a real statement,” Breaux said. “Her level of fitness and her commitment to getting ready week in and week out has been exemplary. She’s ready to go in and compete."
And, if needed, come through in the clutch on a moment's notice.