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GymHawks hope to perform differently against Denver

BY MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD | FEBRUARY 11, 2011 7:10 AM

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The Iowa women’s gymnastics team will compete twice this weekend — at 7 p.m. today against No. 20 Denver and at 2 p.m. Feb. 13 against Wisconsin-Stout. Even though there are two meets with only one day of rest, the GymHawks are hoping to break their habits this weekend, on and off the apparatuses.

The No. 23 Hawkeyes are midway through their season but aren’t facing the same exhaustion they were struggling with at this time last year. With a grueling weekend of competition ahead of them, they’re hoping to disregard fatigue.

“This is going to be the turning point for us,” head coach Larissa Libby said. “This is that critical point in the season when you get fatigued and tired, and exams are coming up, but now is when you’re going see what you’re made of and whether they can truly hold that balance.”

In their past two meets, the GymHawks have struggled with consistency. At their last competition against North Carolina, Iowa was ahead for the first three rotations but suffered from three falls on beam in rotation four. The implosion on beam resulted in a 1.1 point swing and a loss for the Hawkeyes, and the team members walked away frustrated with themselves, Libby said.

Starting with Denver, the GymHawks are hoping to break the pattern of making several mistakes on a single apparatus and continue to increase their team score.

“I think we’re ready to prove that we’re not the team that keeps imploding on different events,” sophomore Emma Stevenson said. “We’re ready to show that those were exceptions, a one- or two-time thing, and it’s not going to happen anymore.”

Some gymnasts are trying to break other habits as well, whether they’re in competition or off the floor. Last year, Stevenson created a tradition where she ate red seedless grapes before every competition. What started as a snack to boost her blood sugar became a crutch, one that she is trying to avoid.

“I think I’m getting more stable with my mentality,” she said. “I’m just trying to wean off [of the grapes] so I don’t have to depend on anything. I don’t like to depend on things that I can’t always control that I have.”

Junior all-arounder Jessa Hansen is also leaving habits behind. In previous years, she has struggled with controlling her nerves before competing, but this season she has shown a lot of improvement.

Before competing, Stevenson and Hansen share a tradition of a cheer and handshake, which helps calm Hansen’s nerves. The ritual helps raise her confidence, which results in higher scores.

“When you’re nervous, the best thing to do is just overdo it,” she said. “I just try to be really aggressive and confident.”

Stevenson, who has a strong mental toughness that is crucial to gymnastics, frequently trains with Hansen to settle her. The handshakes they do in meets evolve from spontaneous inside jokes, which are repeated to each other in practice, then used in meets to calm nerves. Hansen’s nervousness has improved this season, and she has become a strong all-arounder.

“She’s actually quite a bit better now than when she was here as a freshman,” Libby said. “She’s very settled in what she’s trying to do, and Emma has a lot to do with that. Emma helps Jessa bring out the best in herself. All it takes is just one or two words from Emma to have Jessa believe 100 percent in what she can do and perform an awesome routine.”

Some habits and rituals aren’t negative for the team, however. Whether it’s eating grapes or clementines, drinking Starbucks or purple Powerade, or the team’s traditional “power circle” meeting before every meet, the GymHawks use their team activities to stay strong and calm together.

“In gymnastics, you don’t have a lot of control,” Libby said. “You can’t control what the judges do, what other people think of you, only your attitudes and your effort — that’s it. So when you find things that work and give you control and bring the team together, you keep them.”


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