LSU gymnast Ashleigh Gnat stood under the flickering fluorescent lights of the party supply store off Perkins Road, staring into the faces of three-crown-adorned, styrofoam mannequin heads.
She had an important decision to make.
As a former national champion, Gnat was accustomed to high-pressure situations, but nothing quite like this: Choose the correct crown and the LSU gymnastics program could have a tradition for generations to come.
Choose the wrong headgear, and the Tigers' newest gimmick dies before the first vault.
Fortunately, Gnat had a few guidelines:
- It had to be an open-top, so gymnasts can fit it over their hair buns during meets;
- It had to be sturdy enough to survive cross country road trips;
- It had to have a certain feminine grace;
- It had to be big, but it couldn’t be ridiculous;
- Most of all, it had to stand out.
Gnat, now a student assistant coach, studied her options for a moment.
Then she saw it — the gold-painted, plastic-jewel-encrusted aluminum crown that became the newest showpiece of LSU gymnastics.
For $16.45, the legend of the “Stick Crown” was born.
“I was a little nervous,” Gnat said. “I was hoping the girls liked it.”
The idea of the Stick Crown began in the fall when associate head coach Jay Clark watched the Miami Hurricanes football players pass around their now-famous “turnover chain.”
Clark has been a fan and friend of Miami coach Mark Richt since the two coached at Georgia.
Clark mulled over ideas for a motivational symbol for the Tigers. He later defined it as a reward for sticking the landing on dismounts.
After playing with the idea a while, Clark almost didn’t say anything to the team, thinking they would find it lame or cheesy. He certainly didn’t think anyone outside the program would care.
“You want your team focused and you want them intense, but you also want them to be loose,” Clark said. “Particularly in our sport, to have them be loose is something that creates a contagious environment and can get the momentum going.
“It was just something I suggested: ‘Hey, have you guys seen this?’ ”
Clark couldn’t have been more wrong in his prediction.
The gymnasts immediately latched onto the idea.
They threw out ideas like a sash or tiara. Those weren’t flashy enough.
No one remembers who first suggested the crown, but it was the obvious choice.
From there, Gnat got her search orders.
“We were thinking maybe a little tiara,” junior Sarah Finnegan said. “But no, we wanted something the crowd can see. She got this huge, big ol' crown. It worked out.”
Lexie Priessman was the first Tiger to wear the crown after scoring a 9.900 on vault in the LSU’s season opener against Arkansas last weekend — sticking the landing in the process, of course.
At first, it was a simple handoff. It was more an inside joke than a major ordeal.
But by the time LSU went to bars for the second rotation, the Tigers created an entire coronation ceremony to go with each passing.
With every stick, the new Stick Queen takes a knee in front of injured junior McKenna Kelley, who proceeds to anoint them with her sword (a gold pompom).
“It’s something just for our team to have fun,” Priessman said. “It’s something to get our mind off the actual meet that’s happening, and if you’re a little stressed, to know that this is something that’s fun.”
Between meets, sophomore Ashlyn Kirby watches over the Stick Crown. It’s her responsibility to make sure it survives plane trips to away meets. She will put her guard skills to the test when No. 1 LSU travels to No. 7 Florida for one of the biggest meets of the season at 6 p.m. Friday.
Once the meet begins, Kirby hands off the crown to Kelley, who proudly displays the royal jewels from the handles of her knee walker until the first coronation of the night.
Kelley then handles all coronation duties. She was out for the season after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon, so being the official keeper of the crown is one of the ways she’s able to stay involved with the team.
“She’s such a tremendous part of our energy,” Clark said. “Anybody that’s watched her for very long understands McKenna’s personality and alter ego and so many different personalities that can come out and her sense of humor. She’s just somebody that has that creative mindset and has been a driving force for a lot of the fun we have on the floor.”
Coach D-D Breaux said a few of her teams in the past 41 seasons picked up small motivational items like the crown, but nothing quite as bold as this.
After just one meet, the school’s marketing department is already rushing to put together crown-themed promotions.
LSU’s next home meet against No. 9 Alabama on Jan. 19 will feature a crown Snapchat filter, which fans can use for pictures.
“I think it was a fabulous idea,” Breaux said. “The kids really embraced it. It was a lot of fun. Jay brought it into our power circle (during the pre-meet warmup), and it was a great idea.”