The Hearnes Center at Missouri was going bonkers.
Mizzou gymnast Kennedi Harris just nailed a 9.95 floor routine to anchor her team in its final event, giving Missouri what looked like a chance to snatch an upset victory over LSU.
There really was no chance, even though LSU had already counted a fall on beam. If LSU had had to count both of its falls, the Tigers still would have eked out at least a narrow 196.525-196.375 victory.
The other reason was Sarah Finnegan was anchoring LSU on beam. And she doesn’t fall for anything.
“In my elite career I was always taught to focus on what I was doing, don’t let any distractions bother me,” Finnegan said. “That definitely played a part in being able to do that.
“One of the questions I got after the Missouri meet was, ‘Could you hear the crowd go crazy?’ after Kennedi landed her floor routine when I was on beam. I didn’t even notice that. You’re taught to keep your blinders on and focus on what you’re doing.”
Soft-spoken almost to the point she could be mistaken for introverted, Finnegan is practically legendary for keeping things separated by her mental dividers.
Gymnastics over here.
Classwork over there.
Personal life outside the gym, maybe in a box in her car or back at the apartment she shares with fellow LSU gymnasts McKenna Kelley and Lexie Priessman.
“Sarah has this remarkable ability to compartmentalize things,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. “She’s got her challenges academically and what she has to do to get that done at a very high level, so she puts that in a box. Then she’s got her social life and her family life, and that’s in a box. What she does in gymnastics is over here.”
“The gym is where you do gymnastics,” Finnegan explained. “Outside life is outside life.”
What Finnegan does in gymnastics she does exceptionally well.
She was one of three alternates on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team after establishing herself as international-class elite competitor. This past April she became the first LSU gymnast to win an NCAA uneven bars championship, making her one of nine national champions whose names are enshrined on banners hanging above the Pete Maravich Assembly Center floor. She came into the weekend as the nation’s fourth-ranked all-arounder and bumped up her season average to 39.579 after a career-high 39.775 Friday in the Mardi Gras Invitational in St. Charles, Missouri.
But last season, even as she was pushing toward five All-American honors and that NCAA title on bars, something happened that threatened to smash through her mental dividers and take over her life.
‘Back from the dead’
It was the week after Finnegan’s 20th birthday in November 2016 and just before she was getting ready to head home to Lee’s Summitt, Missouri, for the Thanksgiving break. Her older sister, Hannah, herself a former collegiate gymnast at Mizzou and then a team manager after having to retire from the spot, was down visiting.
There was a phone call from their mother, Linabelle.
“Girls, I don’t want you to be worried,” their mother told them, “but your dad is in the hospital.”
For Sarah, that simply didn’t compute. Her father, Don, was a collegiate wrestler at wrestling-mad Iowa State, helping the Cyclones win the 1977 NCAA championship. “I think I got that competitive side from him,” she said.
Don Finnegan had stayed fit and watched what he ate even long after his wrestling days, but now he was suffering from pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. If unchecked, the condition can be fatal.
“It was strange, because my dad is never sick,” Sarah said. “He’s Superman. I thought, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine.’ But we go home and he’s in the ICU. We actually had to spend Thanksgiving in the ICU.”
Don Finnegan’s condition took a turn for the worse after his daughters arrived back home. There was a point where his doctors told Linabelle, “You need to prepare for your husband to die.”
During the 2016 Christmas holidays, Don Finnegan began to recover, but his condition became septic, and he was rushed back to the hospital. Eventually, he was transferred from Kansas City to another hospital in St. Louis where he underwent surgery.
“That was the whole season like that,” Sarah said.
When the Tigers went to St. Charles, Missouri, in February 2017 for last season’s Mardi Gras Invitational just outside St. Louis, the entire team went to visit Don Finnegan in the hospital. He was able to attend the meet as well as the NCAA Championships in St. Louis in April, when LSU finished as national runner-up for the second straight year.
Fortunately, Don Finnegan has made a strong recovery. He and his wife attended the Mardi Gras meet Friday night before flying to Tacoma, Washington, to see their youngest daughter, Aleah, compete in the Charity Choice Invitational. (Aleah is committed to LSU, but she won’t compete until 2022.)
“He’s at the home meets dancing in the aisles,” Breaux said. “It’s really a remarkable recovery.”
It’s even more than that, Don Finnegan said.
“It’s a miracle. It’s good to be back from the dead.”
From toddler to Olympian
Sarah Finnegan started in gymnastics when she was 3 years old. Her mother read that gymnastics was a good sport for toddler brain development. She started Sarah’s sister, Hannah, in the sport, and being a younger sister Sarah wanted to copy what her older sibling did.
“From a young age it was obvious she was better than me,” Hannah Finnegan said. “They put her ahead (in higher gymnastics levels). It didn’t bother me.
“She loved the gym, loved being upside down. It was fun for her. As she got older she developed a lot of mental toughness. That helped her in college.”
Sarah spent the past five years of her junior gymnastics career working with Al Fong at his suburban Kansas City facility, Great American Gymnastics Express. A native of Seattle, Fong was an LSU men’s gymnast from 1972-75 and trained 2004 Olympic silver medalists Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool (McCool later competed at Georgia when LSU assistant Jay Clark was the head coach there).
“She was an extremely talented athlete,” Fong said. “There was no one better as an all-arounder.”
At the 2012 Olympic gymnastics trials, Finnegan finished fifth on beam and sixth on floor, bars and in the all-around, just missing a spot in the group of five U.S. gymnasts who would become known as the “Fierce Five.”
Finnegan ended up as one of three alternates for the U.S. team, meaning she went down in the books as an Olympian. While the Fierce Five headed to London to prepare for the games, Finnegan and the other two alternates went to Birmingham, England, to train at a separate facility in case they would be needed. None of them got to compete, but they did attend the gymnastics sessions during the London Games.
Asked if it was a bittersweet experience being that close to competing in the Olympics but only being a spectator, Finnegan was sanguine.
“It was an opportunity only a handful of people get,” she said. “It was an honor being an alternate. In the books I’m considered and Olympian, which is cool. It’s something I earned. And I know I was there for Team USA if someone were to go down.”
On to LSU
Fong thought Finnegan should try to hold off her college career and go for a spot in the 2016 Olympics as LSU teammate Ruby Harrold did for Great Britain. But she was eager to get to LSU and open the next chapter of her gymnastics career.
Actually, some of the gymnastics routines Finnegan does now are a bit less difficult than what she did trying to make the Olympic team. On the beam, Finnegan used to do three so-called “wolf turns,” a risky sideways flip in which it’s difficult to keep your balance. College rules don’t give extra credit for multiple wolf turns, so Finnegan does only one.
As good as she was in 2017, Finnegan has appeared to up her game in 2018. Perhaps it’s a function of experience. Perhaps it’s no longer the fear over her dad’s health intruding into the box where she keeps her gymnastics.
“Sarah’s very mentally tough,” Don Finnegan said, “but I could tell (his illness) affected her performance.”
As she showed in the meet at Missouri, she’s got the blinders back on. And that’s a good thing.
Team SEC Pct. Overall Pct. High
LSU 5-0 1.000 10-1 .910 198.075
Florida 4-1 .800 6-1 .857 198.150
Alabama 4-2 .667 4-3 .571 197.075
Georgia 3-3 .500 3-4 .429 197.000
Kentucky 2-4 .333 5-4 .556 196.950
Arkansas 2-4 .333 3-6 .333 197.175
Auburn 1-4 .200 6-6 .500 197.000
Missouri 1-4 .200 3-5 .375 196.375
@-Mardi Gras Invitational: LSU 198.075, Missouri 196.025, Arkansas 195.575, George Washington 195.650
Florida 196.950, Georgia 196.125
Auburn 196.575, Rutgers 194.225
Alabama 196.925, Kentucky 196.375
@-at St. Charles, Missouri
Texas Woman’s University at LSU, 2:30 p.m.