GymHawks sign another Canadian gymnast


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Out of the 14 gymnasts on the Iowa women’s gymnastics team, three of them — freshman Nicole Pineau, sophomore Kaitlyn Urano, and senior Rebecca Simbhudas — were recruited from Canada.

And on Jan. 28, the team added another Canadian to the mix.

Emily Bigras of Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, has committed to join Iowa next season.

The GymHawks’ strong ties to Canada trace to head coach Larissa Libby, who is also Canadian. She started competing for Canada at a national level when she was 11 years old, and, in 1989, led the Canadian world championship team to a sixth-place finish — the country’s highest finish to date. In 1988, she competed for Canada in the Seoul Olympics at the age of 14.

Being a successful Canadian gymnast, she uses her connections to international gyms that regularly produce high-level athletes to boost her recruiting for the GymHawks.

“It’s easy for me to recruit out of Canada, where I know a lot of gyms,” Libby said. “I can trust the coaches there, take their word that the girls they steer our way are quality athletes and quality people.”

The process of recruiting is changing as gymnasts are verbally committing earlier. Iowa can get overlooked, so recruitment from Canada helps bring in more high-caliber gymnasts, Libby said.

“A lot of people don’t even know where Iowa is on a map,” she said. “But luckily for us, Iowa is like a diamond in the rough. We have a very good [gymnastics] program here. This school just shines for itself.”

Urano wasn’t aware of Libby’s squad until the Canadian national championships in 2009, where she met representatives from Iowa’s program and soon after visited campus. After meeting the gymnasts and learning of Libby’s accolades, Urano became very interested in becoming a Hawkeye, she said.

Simbhudas, on the other hand, knew about Iowa gymnastics well before the end of her high-school career. Her sister, Jenifer Simbhudas, was a gymnast for the Hawkeyes from 2006-10.

At first, Rebecca Simbhudas wasn’t focused on college gymnastics; instead, she had her sights on being an elite gymnast for the world championships and the Olympics.

“My sister persuaded me to look into college gymnastics,” she said. “She’s the reason I’m here. I didn’t really know about Iowa or Larissa that much until my sister told me. But I’d seen posters of her, so to have her as the head coach got me interested.”

The Canadian GymHawks were connected with each other before coming to Iowa — Urano and Pineau were teammates. At some point in time, each of Pineau’s, Urano’s, and Simbhudas’ coaches also instructed Libby. Libby and Simbhudas even came from the same gym.

“We can all relate to each other because we’re from Canada and also because we were all kind of connected beforehand,” Pineau said. “It’s something that we all have in common to bring us together.”

Canada has no college gymnastics programs, and all athletics scholarships are limited, so high-level gymnasts lose the opportunity to be rewarded for their talent.

“I’m getting so much more here than I would get back home,” Urano said. “It’s truly a blessing to be able to come here, and do my sport, and represent Iowa while getting an education at the same time. I couldn’t do both in Canada.”

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