Ashleigh Gnat can’t remember a time she wasn’t doing gymnastics.
Both of her parents were gymnasts. Dad Ray was an All-American gymnast on LSU’s long-defunct men’s team in the early 1980s, while mom Joan (then Moore) was on the 1972 U.S. team that competed in the Munich Olympics.
Together, they started their own gymnastics academy, Ace Gymnastics, in suburban Orlando, Florida.
The gym may not have been Ashleigh’s very first stop after coming home from the hospital, but it wasn’t far down the list.
“Even before she was walking, she would wheel herself around the gym in her walker while we were coaching,” Joan Gnat recalled.
The season wheels Gnat and her fellow LSU gymnasts toward Florida on Friday night for a huge top-10 showdown between the Tigers and reigning NCAA champion Gators.
The meet begins at 6 p.m. CST at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville and will be televised on the SEC Network.
Though she’s only a junior, this will be Gnat’s second and last meet at Florida. A college career is that fleeting.
The last time she competed at Florida, a school that didn’t recruit her, Gnat was a wide-eyed freshman. This time, she’s the wise 21-year-old upperclassman who will be counted on to lead her talented but inexperienced teammates into a tough competitive situation between the No. 2 (Florida) and No. 4 (LSU) teams in the nation, in terms of season averages.
“It’ll be a great experience for our freshmen,” said Gnat, who not surprisingly earned the nickname “Bugs.”
“To be in an environment like theirs is really awesome. For me personally it’s my hometown crowd, so I’m really excited.”
The Gnats figure “Bugs” will have a rooting section of about 60 — family members and people from Ace Gymnastics.
“Everyone’s so excited to see her,” Ray Gnat said.
They will be seeing Ashleigh at her best.
How good has she been? She capped LSU’s home meet last Friday against Auburn with her third 10 of the season after two earlier 10s on the vault in January.
According to LSU, no other college gymnast has more than one 10 this season.
Gnat shrugs off her amazing performances, as though sticking the vault landing with a perfect double-twisting Yurchenko is something people do on the steps of LSU’s student union.
“You just do the best you can,” she said. “You really can’t control the scores. You have no say in what the judges think. You can just control how you perform and how you compete.”
Competing in gymnastics runs in Gnat’s family. Not just with her parents, but with older sister Jeana Rice, who was a 2004 NCAA All-Around champion at Alabama.
Gnat wasn’t always sure she wanted to be a competitive gymnast, though.
“She didn’t do very well at the beginning, actually,” Ray Gnat said. “Kids do compulsories through level six or seven, and she never won a state title. But when she got into optionals at level eight, she won a regional title for the first time. She took it a little more seriously and she got real competitive.”
Gnat insisted her parents never pressured her to stay with competitive gymnastics.
“I went through a phase when I was 12 when I said, ‘I’m not really sure if this is what I want to do anymore,’ ” she recalled. “I was always open to do whatever. But I’ve definitely pushed myself to be where I am today.”
Joan Gnat said she’s proud of the way her daughter found success on her own terms.
“One the things I love so much about Ashleigh is she always admired our successes but always made her own way,” she said. “She never felt she had to live up to be Olympian and a national champion and being something other than herself. That speaks to the type of person she is.
“People say to her, ‘Isn’t that a lot of pressure?’ but she never let it get to her. She always says, ‘That’s great, but I am who I am.’ She’s beautiful inside and out. Not just a great gymnast but she’s a great person. I admire her so much.”
LSU coach D-D Breaux, who competed against Joan Gnat as a junior and was at LSU the day Ray Gnat first walked into the gym, praised Ashleigh for the leader she’s become on a precocious Tigers team. Especially after LSU lost such key seniors from last year’s team as Rheagan Courville, Lloimincia Hall and Jessie Jordan.
“She’s the most unselfish leader I’ve ever been around,” said Breaux, in her 39th season as LSU’s coach. “I’ve never heard her say ‘I’ or put things in perspective as it only relates to her. She started this last year. She started preparing herself to be the person who speaks for the team and has the whole team’s well being in mind.”
The only concern for Breaux regarding Gnat in this key meet is that she doesn’t try to do too much.
“We need to make sure she stays within herself and just does Bugs,” Breaux said.
For someone who spent her life in the gym, that should be plenty good enough.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.