A collegiate gymnast’s career is usually brutal in its finality.
There is no fading into the sunset as in some other sports. No senior tour. Not even a chance to say, “Well, I’m off to the Olympics.” That’s a path which gymnasts, if they’re one of the chosen few, must have taken long before. That last tumbling pass on floor in college or that last flip off beam or bars or vault, whenever it comes, is the end.
This year, though, is a bit different. Gymnasts are among the athletes whom the NCAA has granted a do over. Because their 2020 seasons were cut short last March by the coronavirus pandemic, they can have extra year of eligibility should they choose to take it.
That is the decision LSU’s six seniors are grappling with going into what is usually the Senior Night meet Friday against Missouri (7:30 p.m., SECNetwork+) in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Done or do over? Stay, or go?
On one hand, gymnastics has been their life.
“It’s the only thing I’ve known,” Bridget Dean said. “The gym has been my home. It would be weird to go through my day without practice or having that security of being a gymnast.”
There is also that nameless yet powerful pull that comes in your early 20s, nearing the end of your college days, when you see your friends moving on and you are beckoned to do the same. Of finally feeling like a grown up and wanting to experience what that is like.
“I think there’s a part of me that wants to start a new chapter,” Sarah Edwards said. “I love these girls to death and they will be my girls forever. But I’d love to have some new experiences. That does draw me in, moving somewhere else, trying something else besides gymnastics. That’s exciting, too. Change doesn’t bother me.”
‘That’s not how life works’
Only one of the six has decided this will be her last season. Olivia Gunter from Mandeville, one of LSU’s four homegrown gymnasts, has not competed yet this season. She hopes to get on the floor against Missouri. But either way she will celebrate Senior Night with her family and then head with them to Walk-On’s afterward, their post-meet tradition.
“I wouldn’t trade my four years here for the world,” Gunter said. “But I do kind of feel it’s time to go to the next thing. I’m ready. Opportunities have presented themselves. But it has been incredible. I don’t think it could get any better. I’ve lived out the best four years I could have.”
Gunter, 22, started in gymnastics at 3. Her preschool was a gym. Recess was cartwheels across the floor.
“I can’t remember not doing gymnastics,” she said. “I never played another sport. I never did dance. I once told my mom that I wanted to play soccer and she said, ‘OK, but you have to choose soccer or gymnastics.’
“I chose gymnastics.”
The six seniors have talked a lot together about their looming decisions. They are an exceptionally close group – Christina Desiderio referred to the other five as her “sisters” – but in the end they must make six individual choices.
“The coolest thing would be for us all to decide to do it all together,” Gunter said. “But that’s not how life works.”
The LSU gymnastics team slipped one spot in the national rankings to No. 3 while its season average went up.
‘Everyone has got something’
One of the biggest factors in coming back are whether their bodies can take another year of pounding. Gymnasts may smile and sparkle through their routines — the sport combines a cliff diver’s daredevil bravado with a Broadway musical’s showmanship — but after 15-20 years of practice and competitions, something almost always hurts.
“For the most part it’s the little things,” Sami Durante said. “Soreness, being tight or whatever. Everyone has always got something going on and there’s not much you can do to prevent that. That’s the sport.”
For Desiderio, it’s her ankles. She hails from Hackettstown, New Jersey, about an hour west of Manhattan, where you can smell the chocolate being made at the Mars factory there when the wind blows toward her house.
At 4 or 5 she did cartwheels across the floor of a restaurant and her mother knew it was time for gymnastics. A kindergarten friend taught her some early moves and she began in earnest at 6½. Eventually, Desiderio was training from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. while being home schooled.
“It takes a toll on your body,” she said. “Mentally it takes a toll, too.”
Durante has had four surgeries just since she’s been at LSU. Reagan Campbell, who has done gymnastics for 20 of her 22 years and used to train at the same suburban Dallas gym with Herschel Walker’s son, had surgery on her arm after her freshman year and screws put in her ankle before this season. She also suffers from severe scoliosis and will have a rod inserted in her spine whenever her gymnastics is over.
“My body is kind of telling me, ‘No, please don’t do this again,’ ” Campbell said. “It’s just managing the pain. I have to deal with pain different than the other girls.”
Dealing with all of that, what could possibly be the appeal of returning for another physically demanding season?
“I guess it would be my teammates,” Campbell said, “the people here. I love it so much. I’d hate to leave. These are the people who shaped me into the person I am today. I can manage back pain.”
It is that love of the sport, of the camaraderie, that pulls them back.
Both of Durante’s parents were gymnasts. Her mom, Danna, once coached at Georgia. She tried to discourage her daughter from the sport. Didn’t work.
“I didn’t start until I was 6,” Sami said. “Before that I was climbing on coaches, up walls, everything.
“I honestly love to do gymnastics. The excitement has never gone away. Obviously as I get older it hurts a little more and the injuries come easier. But I’m still excited to do gymnastics. For me that’s a hard decision to make. The gymnastics part I love and will always love.”
Dean is considering a career in real estate. Desiderio dreams of starting her own line of athletic wear. But Durante and Edwards are planning on being in graduate school next academic year, anyway. LSU coach Jay Clark said he welcomes all of the seniors back and expects some of them to return. Their school plans make Durante and Edwards the odds-on favorites of the on-the-fencers to at least be the ones.
But the physical part is a major consideration. Edwards, who played violin in a youth orchestra and competed in high school track as a hurdler in addition to her gymnastics, takes the long-term view.
“I think it’ll be how my body is faring after this year with my lower extremity ailments,” said Edwards, her 2020 campaign having been cut even shorter by a season-ending ankle injury during her floor routine at Florida. “I’m trying to keep healthy. I want to be able to walk and be a norm person after this year.”
‘Winning a natty’
There is one thing that could push the seniors to call it a career: winning LSU’s elusive first NCAA championship in April.
At the moment it looks like No. 1-ranked Florida’s year, and Oklahoma just slid past LSU as the National Qualifying Score (NQS) rankings were factored in for the first time this week, pushing the Tigers to No. 3.
Still, LSU was one last floor pass by freshman Haleigh Bryant away from beating Florida last month. Despite some recent struggles in losses to Alabama and Kentucky, only LSU, Florida and Oklahoma have posted plus-198 scores this season. The seniors remain confident they can win the title then possibly decide to go out on top.
“For sure,” Durante said. “That's always the end goal.”
“I think my decision will be made off of purely where my head is,” Dean said. “But winning a natty would be like I accomplished everything could in the sport.”
For Campbell, who because of her health seems to have the biggest reason to step away, a national title still would not be the be-all-end-all.
“That would probably be a big factor,” she said. “I would definitely feel like we’ve done all we can. Something that exciting with the team would make me feel more ready to move on to next step.
“But it’s not the overriding factor. If I stay it’s also because we have some amazing girls coming in (for 2022) and our team could be even better.”
The internal tug of war is a strong one for the five undecided seniors.
“With gymnastics when you’re done, you’re done,” Durante said. “For me it’s the perspective of whether this is the last time, or do I get one more year of doing what I love. That’s where I am. I have the rest of my life to do the rest of my life.”
Edwards asks herself why not let the show go on, especially after this season of limited crowds (LSU has averaged around 2,500 fans per meet) in the normally packed PMAC.
“It’s so fun to put on the glittery suits, to be in a spotlight,” she said. “LSU knows how to make their gymnasts feel good, and you mastered this at this point for four years.”
Four years or five? For Desiderio, and perhaps the other four undecided seniors, it may just come down to what is ultimately in her heart when this season is over.
“I’ll know when the time is right,” Desiderio said. “If feel I can do it and my body feels good, I’ll know.”
Team SEC Pct. Overall Pct. Season NQS
Florida 6-0 1.000 7-0 1.000 197.613
Alabama 5-1 .833 6-1 .857 196.842
Kentucky 4-2 .667 4-3 .571 196.350
LSU 3-3 .500 4-3 .571 197.325
Arkansas 2-4 .333 2-5 .286 196.854
Missouri 2-4 .333 2-5 .286 195.529
Georgia 1-5 .167 2-5 .286 196.329
Auburn 1-5 .167 1-6 .143 196.013
Last Friday’s results
Kentucky 197.100, LSU 196.800
Alabama 197.325, Arkansas 197.000
Florida 198.275, Auburn 197.025
Missouri 196.575, Georgia 196.100
Missouri at LSU, 7:30 p.m. (SECNetwork+)
Kentucky at Georgia, 6 p.m. (SEC Network alternate)
Arkansas at Auburn, 7 p.m. (SECNetwork+)
Florida at Alabama, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network alternate)
END REGULAR SEASON
All times CST