Jay Clark’s wife, Julie, was putting the couple’s children to sleep upstairs one November night in 2014, just before national signing day.
Jay was downstairs, expecting the call from Sarah Finnegan, then an uncommitted prospect like a handful he’d recruited before.
Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool were Clark’s former pupils at Georgia. Both competed at the 2004 Olympics. Finnegan was an alternate on the 2012 team.
Both from Missouri, Finnegan and McCool trained at the same gym under coach Al Fong.
“They’ve been to the top of the mountain in the sport,” Clark said. “To get them excited about doing it in college can be difficult.”
Soon Clark’s phone rang.
With the value of hindsight, he now admits apprehension. Finnegan was deciding between LSU and Oklahoma — where Breanna Dowell, Finnegan’s friend, who trained at the same gym, was a freshman. Finnegan’s Oklahoma visit, a week after her stop at LSU, was the final one she made.
Clark said he expected bad news, though he graciously prepared to congratulate Finnegan for fear of making her regretful.
“I let out a yell,” Clark said, the moment Finnegan committed to him. “My wife came running downstairs. We sort of celebrated on the phone with her a little bit. Hollered, screamed and yelled ‘Go Tigers’ several times.”
He entered the gym the next day to deliver the surprise to the team.
“Everybody screamed,” Ashleigh Gnat remembers.
Recruiting gymnasts starts years before they ever enter high school. Clark, in his fourth year at LSU, eyed Finnegan while still the head coach at Georgia. LSU coach D-D Breaux first saw her when she was 10 at an elite-qualifying meet in Boca Raton, Florida.
Finnegan came to LSU on the weekend of Oct. 25, 2014, a rare official visit from an uncommitted prospect. She was hosted by then-freshman Myia Hambrick.
“Can you make her feel at home” coaches asked Hambrick.
Finnegan soaked it in slowly, rarely changing her demeanor — aside from one moment, when she was led into the back room of Mike the Tiger’s habitat where LSU veterinary students care for the 10-year-old, 450-pound Siberian-Bengal mix.
“I was literally like right next to him, the cage was right there and I’m trying to smile and take a picture,” Finnegan said. ”It was fun.”
Just two-and-a-half years before, Finnegan was 15 and at the Olympic Trials with a throbbing elbow. It was an overuse injury she thinks was made worse by a high-low bar release (a bail) on uneven bars. She was hesitant to have it examined.
“I started not being able to squirt from the water bottle,” Finnegan said. “I couldn’t do anything about it. It was in preparation for the Olympics and the Olympics only come every four years. I actually didn’t want to tell my coaches, I wanted to keep pushing through.”
Her mother eventually told the coaches. They decreased her repetitions and held her out of certain drills that stressed the elbow, which as it turned out, contained a torn ligament and a separated growth plate that required a bone graft.
In a cast for three months, and out of gymnastics for six, after surgery, a burnt out, overworked Finnegan began to re-evaluate her career and the trajectory it had.
“I could have gone more (in elite gymnastics),” Finnegan said. “It wasn’t in my heart anymore to go that far.”
McCool and Kupets faced similar emotions.
Clark calls their college careers “rehabilitation” and used his experiences with them as talking points when approaching Finnegan, who would need similar guidance after her elite experiences.
“Everyone else thinks that’s incredible,” Clark said. “For her (being an alternate) was a letdown … for some kids like that that come out of a situation where it didn’t end the way they want, you have to rehab their soul and their spirit a little bit and get them excited about what they’re doing again. We’re beginning to get there with her.”
It’s much too early to forecast Finnegan’s legacy. She’s competed just four routines at LSU.
She hopes to compete in the all-around at the Metroplex Challenge on Jan. 30, though more consistency on floor and vault is needed. She’s demonstrated it on bars and beam — her 9.925 beam score against Oklahoma was the highest beam debut for a freshman in program history.
Days before that meet, Finnegan recounted her visits to the two schools and what led her to Baton Rouge.
“I felt like I was supposed to go to LSU,” she said. “It felt like home.”