Banged-up GymHawks wonder what could’ve been

BY EVELYN LAU | APRIL 09, 2009 7:30 AM

The possibility of what chould have been still lingered as the Iowa women’s gymnastics team met in the Field House for the first time since hosting the NCAA North Central Regional.

Losing seven gymnasts — including three seniors — to injuries, along with inconsistent performances throughout the season, proved to be too much for Iowa (10-5, 2-2) to overcome as it struggled its way through the end of the season.

“I think, more than anything, we’ve got a team wondering why,” head coach Larissa Libby said. “This is probably the team that we’ve had in the best shape, strongest team, most physically fit, and mentally prepared team we’ve had in a very long time. Why the injuries? We have no idea. We are big believers in everything happens for a reason, so we’re hopeful we’ll get some insight on why.”

Iowa opened its season at home against Southeast Missouri State and then-No. 7 LSU but finished in third place.

Shortly after the disappointing season-opener, the GymHawks won the next three meets with either sophomore Houry Gebeshian or senior Jenifer Simbhudas taking the all-around titles.

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Iowa then dropped a meet to Ohio State but received far more devastating news with the loss of senior Kara Pinjuv to an Achilles injury. It turned out to be a crucial turning point.

“Kara was a 9.9 guarantee almost on every event and a consistent athlete,” Libby said. “Our lack of consistency came when [she] got hurt. After that, we lost four more kids in nine days, so I think that was just our downfall right there for us, just trying to mess with the lineups every week, trying to figure out who was ready and who we could get in there safely.”

Heading to Ames, the GymHawks refocused on their in-state rivals. Putting together solid team performances, Iowa won the season series for the first time since 1992. However during the “Pink Meet,” Iowa sophomore Kristen Ward went down with an injury. This opened an opportunity for sophomore Rebecca Simbhudas to fill in on the floor exercise, claiming her first collegiate all-around title with a 39.225.

“I wasn’t really expecting [to win] because I was supposed to exhibition on floor,” she said after the meet. “It was just like a boost for upcoming meets [knowing] that I could actually hit four-for-four.”

Rebecca Simbhudas continued to shine while at Southern Utah, scoring a 9.925 on the balance beam — the highest mark scored by a GymHawk since 2006 — en route to finishing second in the all-around with a 39.250. She was honored as co-Big Ten Gymnast of the Week.

Iowa then returned home to face No. 25 Maryland and No. 24 Kentucky.

Against Maryland, the GymHawks placed first in every event. Jenifer Simbhudas won the vault (9.900) and balance beam (9.825), Gebeshian took the uneven bars (9.800), and freshman Jessa Hansen placed tops on the floor exercise (9.875). The all-around went to Gebeshian (39.300).

Hitting on 23 of 24 events, Iowa scored a season-high 196.525 against Kentucky, and Jenifer Simbhudas won the all-around with career-high of 39.525. She received a 9.900 on the vault, 9.825 on the uneven bars, 9.875 on the balance beam and a 9.925 on the floor exercise and wasnamed Big Ten Gymnast of the Week.

“Knowing that this was the last home meet really, that’s what gave me a little push to give it my all,” she said after the meet. “I mean, every meet was like that, but especially this one.”

Ending the regular season with a tough loss at Minnesota, Iowa headed to the Big Ten championships in Champaign, Ill. Gebeshian and Jenifer Simbhudas were named to the All-Big Ten first team.

During the meet, two falls early cost the GymHawks a shot at the Big Ten title, and they finished seventh with a 195.450.

Qualifying for the NCAA regional, Iowa played host to some of the country’s best. The GymHawks knew the road ahead would be difficult.

Yet another blow was dealt as Jenifer Simbhudas tore her ACL after an awkward landing on the floor exercise. Iowa tried to put together a comeback but ultimately fell short and finished in sixth place (193.625).

“I think if anything good came out from [this season], it was teaching the younger [gymnasts] how to compete and what all this exposure to harder meets was going to be like,” Libby said. “But I think you just can’t help but wonder what could have been.”

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