GymHawks prepare to think pink


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At the Iowa women’s gymnastics meet against Iowa State this evening, the entire arena will be pink — pink banners, balloons, and even floor lines. In the pink meet at 7 p.m. today in the Field House, the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes and No. 22 Cyclones will wear pink leotards, too.

“Everyone, in one way or another, has been affected by breast cancer,” Iowa head coach Larissa Libby said.

The GymHawks have close connections with two breast-cancer survivors. Junior Jessa Hansen’s mother battled the disease, and she has been cancer-free for 11 years; former assistant coach Talya Vexler (2006-09) beat cancer during her gymnastics career.

Vexler was diagnosed with breast cancer during her fifth year of college at Georgia at the age of 23, an age generally considered to be “too young for breast cancer,” Libby said. Her gymnastics team at Georgia organized a pink meet to raise money for breast-cancer awareness, and the tradition has continued and spread across the country.

Since Vexler left Iowa, senior Andrea Hurlburt has kept in touch with her, and following graduation this year, Hurlburt plans to move to Massachusetts to coach at Vexler’s club gym.

“I would consider Talya one of my good friends now,” Hurlburt said. “And she’s told me a lot about what she’s gone through. I think everyone should be aware of how present breast cancer really is, that it could happen to anyone, so I think this meet is important for that.”

Not only will the think pink theme draw a large crowd — fans are encouraged to wear pink as well — but also the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry will likely pack the Field House.

“The rivalry is so heated and so important — not just to us, but to everyone else,” Libby said. “It matters so much to everyone in the state, everyone in athletics. I think whether you’ve done gymnastics or haven’t, or know nothing about gymnastics, you know about the rivalry, and that’s all you need to know to be a part of something.”

The Hawkeyes competed against Iowa State on Feb. 18 and lost, 196.35 to 195.85. But the Hawkeyes will have another chance against the Cyclones, and another chance to earn points for Iowa in the Hy-Vee Cy-Hawk series in their home arena.

The GymHawks are excited about what is expected to be a large crowd for their pink meet, because their main goal is to raise breast-cancer awareness.

“I coach 18 to 21 young ladies every year who are in that range where they could be considered ‘too young’ for breast cancer, just like [Vexler],” Libby said. “We want to make sure that they know to just go get checked. We also have the opportunity with so many young kids who follow our team to be role models. If we can save one life with them just being at that meet and just teach them to be aware.”

At one point during the meet, breast-cancer patients and survivors in the crowd will be asked to stand up, Hansen said. And after that, everyone who knows someone affected by breast cancer will be asked to stand up.

“When you see the majority of the crowd stand up, it really makes you realize that cancer affects so many people, so this is just a really important thing that we’re doing,” Hansen said.

While the GymHawks want to increase their team score from their last performance against Iowa State, they’re also focusing on something more than gymnastics today. Their events and routines, their pink leotards, and their thoughts will be dedicated to everyone who has fought breast cancer and anyone who is still fighting.

“During the think pink meet, it puts everything into perspective, that gymnastics is not the only thing that’s important in life,” Hurlburt said. “We get out of the idea that we’re competing against each other, and we come together to support something that’s really important.”

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