FORT WORTH, Texas — A mic’d up Olivia Gunter, recording a video for LSU gymnastics’ account, went up to Sarah Finnegan at practice here Thursday and tried to get her to make a goat sound.
“Why?” a puzzled Finnegan asked.
The obvious answer: Finnegan is the GOAT as far as LSU gymnastics is concerned.
The Greatest Of All Time.
“She’s way up there,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. “The total package. We’ve had great kids, but with little hiccups and glitches, the things she’s great at.”
Of course, it takes a great one to know a GOAT. And former LSU gymnast Ashleigh Gnat defers to Finnegan in terms of gymnastics greatness.
“The best,” Gnat said. “She is beyond anything that I have personally ever seen in the way she goes about her business and conducts herself. It’s beyond talent.
“It’s incredible to have seen her grow.”
Perhaps the greatest thing about Finnegan, the two-time Southeastern Conference gymnast of the year, is she doesn’t act the part. The stick crown LSU gymnasts bestow on one another after nailing the landing on a routine could be permanently affixed to Finnegan’s head, but she doesn’t act like royalty. Instead, when asked about joining Gnat and another former LSU NCAA champion, Susan Jackson, as winners of the AAI Award, given annually to the nation’s top senior gymnast, Finnegan gave the royal “we” when talking about her rare accomplishment.
“It’s a group effort,” Finnegan said. “You get individual accolades, but ultimately it’s a team effort. It’s the entire beam lineup for me to finish off. It’s every single person contributing to bring us to the top.”
In a sport that can easily be a breeding ground for prima donnas, Finnegan may be the least self-absorbed superstar you could find.
“Not at all,” LSU junior Ruby Harrold said. “It’s Sarah. That’s why her gymnastics is so good. She doesn’t think about anything, except probably taking a nap in the next hour.”
Finnegan’s laid-back demeanor belies the heart of a tough competitor. She was visibly irritated in interviews days after a road meet earlier this season when asked about an all-around title she was denied.
“I think she has a competitive nature and a will to win,” Gnat said. “But there is also the carefree side. It’s a good balance, because if you’re too competitive it’s all you’re constantly thinking about.”
The numbers bear out that Finnegan is one of the best — if not the very best — gymnast LSU has ever produced:
• Career individual titles: 91 (fifth in LSU history)
• Career all-around titles: 22 (tied for third)
• Career SEC individual titles: 5 (tied for first)
• Individual titles in a single season: 45 in 2019 (tied for first)
• All-around titles in a season: 13 in 2019 (first)
• Career balance beam titles: 27 (first)
• Career uneven bars titles: 25 (second)
• Beam titles in a season: 11 in 2019 (first)
• Floor titles in a season: 10 in 2019 (tied for second)
• Career perfect 10: 6 (fifth)
Finnegan is LSU’s iron butterfly. The grace of her gymnastics belies her toughness, her ability to produce perfection in a variety of disciplines. In LSU’s history, only Finnegan and Gnat have recorded perfect 10s in three different events — in Finnegan’s case, two on bars, two on beam and two on floor.
“She’s the best I’ve ever been around in 29 years of doing this,” said LSU associate head coach Jay Clark, who has coached an All-American or two (dozen) during his long career.
Her collegiate career is all the more remarkable considering she spent her entire pre-LSU career in elite gymnastics. An alternate on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, Finnegan can still remember her very first collegiate meet. It was LSU’s 2016 season opener against Oklahoma. She scored a 9.85 on bars and a 9.925 on beam.
“It was awesome,” Finnegan said. “I’ve never watched one.”
The one empty category in Finnegan’s illustrious career: a team NCAA title. The question facing her is the same one facing so many great individual collegiate athletes: can she carry the Tigers on her shoulders and advance through Friday’s noon NCAA Championships semifinal and to first place in Saturday’s four-team final? The top two teams between No. 3-seeded LSU, No. 2 UCLA, No. 5 Utah and No. 6 Michigan will advance to the final with the top two teams from the second semifinal comprised of No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Denver, No. 7 Georgia and No. 8 Oregon State.
Finnegan said the hardest part was getting to nationals.
“It’ll be an even playing field,” she said. “I think we have as good a chance as anyone at nationals. The pressure isn’t on us.”
“She can pull her load,” Breaux said. “She’s as good as she’s been all season long. She’s rested, fit and excited.”
Finnegan started in gymnastics when she was 3, when her mother Linabelle put her and her sister Hannah in a Mommy and Me class. After this meet Sarah will be done, turning her attention to graduating in May with a degree in occupational therapy and keeping her hand in the sport by working gymnastics camps.
She looks forward to being in the stands next season, watching her first-ever collegiate meet as a fan. Two years from now Sarah’s youngest sister, Aleah, will enroll at LSU and start competing in 2022, and she will be watching then, too.
Aleah is also a superbly talented gymnast — Sarah probably would defer to her and say she is the more talented — but you can forgive Breaux, Clark and the rest of LSU’s coaching staff if they aren’t looking forward to life without the current Finnegan on their roster quite so much.
“These kinds of kids,” Breaux said, “come around once in a lifetime.”
GOATs usually do.