LSU’s class of five new gymnasts features two former elites, though the star of the group may end up being Haleigh Bryant, among the most heralded L10 athletes in this year’s national incoming class. Bryant has been dominating the circuit for years, winning her first JO all-around title back in 2017 and continuing that success through to her victory at the 2020 Nastia Cup, the final competition before the End Times. Bryant notched three consecutive national vault titles in her L10 divisions in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and would have been the heavy favorite to win a fourth in 2020.
In the realm of elites, Olivia Dunne leads the way in LSU’s class, a four-year junior elite fan favorite who finished 9th all-around at junior nationals in 2017, 0.350 behind Sunisa Lee. Dunne went back to compete L10 in 2020 in preparation for college, finishing 11th at the 2020 Nastia Cup.
One theme in LSU’s freshman class this year is “children of amazing Georgia gymnasts,” which must give LSU a little smirk of naughty joy. Former elite Elena Arenas is the daughter of Kim Arnold, and Sierra Ballard is the daughter of Lori Strong, who now does commentary for LSU. Arenas had a big year in 2017 when she finished 9th all-around in the senior division at nationals, and like Dunne, returned to the world of L10 in the years following her elite experience. Most recently, Arenas placed 8th all-around in her division at 2019 JO Nationals. Ballard also competed at those 2019 JO Nationals, her second appearance at the event, taking 8th place on vault.
Chase Brock is a perennial JO Nationals qualifier herself who arrives at LSU hoping to regain the magic of her 2018 year, when she placed 6th on bars and 8th on vault, while sporting a Yurchenko 1.5.
Utah got its “another one bites the dust” moment out of the way early this season when wildly anticipated freshman Deanne Soza announced her retirement—before we even had a chance to talk about how good her bars was going to be. That means it’s…not going to be exactly the Utah team we expected this year (especially if you recall back to the alternate timeline when MyKayla Skinner might have returned after her 2020 Olympics quest to complete her final year of eligibility at Utah in 2021).
Nonetheless, Utah brings in three quite accomplished freshmen this year, including two former elites. Jaylene Gilstrap competed senior elite in both 2018 and 2019, and while she was never going to boast the difficulty to keep up with the name brands at Classic or Nationals, she made a real mark with her exceptional leaps that stood out against an elite backdrop of “why”-level switch work.
Lucy Stanhope burst into the scene in 2018 when she was named to Great Britain’s European Championships team, primarily to give the team a DTY in the team final, but she can match that level of elite difficulty on every event. Stanhope originally verbaled to Arkansas, but ultimately switched to sign with Utah last fall. Joining Gilstap and Stanhope is US Level 10 Alani Sabado, coming to college a year early. Sadabo achieved by far her best result in 2019 when she finished 3rd all-around at JO Nationals in the Junior E division, a performance underlined by her bronze medal on bars.
Michigan introduces another concentrated class of four JO athletes this year, led by one of the top L10 recruits in the country, Carly Bauman. Bauman was a Chow’s gymnast who has been blinking brightly on the radar for several years, ever since she won her junior division at JO Nationals in 2016 and followed that up with the junior title at the Nastia Cup in 2017. Bauman went on to win JO Nationals again in 2018 and placed 2nd on beam and 4th on bars in 2019.
In 2019, only a floor fall kept her from placing among the very top AAer in her age division, a group led by Kiya Johnson that also included Bauman’s new teammate Naomi Morrison, who took 5th overall. Morrison, originally an Oregon State verbal who switched to Michigan last year, posted her best-ever result at that 2019 competition, which featured top-8 showings on vault, bars, and floor.
Bauman and Morrison will be joined in Michigan’s class by Reyna Guggino, previously an Eastern Michigan verbal who switched to Michigan shortly before signing day last year. Guggino has shown competitive results on vault and floor at state competitions over the years, especially lately, but is among those athletes who were never able to qualify to nationals because qualification is based only on AA score.
Rounding out the class is Jenna Mulligan, whose career highlight was a remarkably strong performance at 2018 JO Nationals, her only time qualifying to that meet, where she finished 5th on floor and 8th on beam, and made you say, “Oh hey that…”
As previously established, the official platform of this website is to pretend this is a normal season and that everything is normal and LALALALALA can’t hear you. Which means, the normal thing to do about this time of year is freshman previews so that we can start making wild proclamations about who’s going to be better or worse this season. Up first, Georgia. Because I said so.
Who Is She?
Georgia has welcomed a trio of new gymnasts headlined by former junior elite obsession Victoria Nguyen. Nguyen burst onto the scene in 2014 as a Chow’s baby who scored a massive 15.200 on beam the second day of nationals, the highest beam score of the junior competition and third-highest of the entire meet—behind only Simone Biles and Kyla Ross.
The remainder of Nguyen’s elite career was marked by being injured every 30 seconds of her life, but she did return to elite as an Everest athlete in 2019, where the stupid elite qualifying rules meant she could compete only vault and bars at American Classic and we didn’t even get to see beam. But I’m totally over it.
Nguyen is joined in this class by Katie Finnegan (no relation), who arrives at Georgia a year early to save the day. Finnegan is among the group of new 2021 athletes in the odd position of having almost never competed as a senior. She was a junior in 2019, and then the everything happened, and now she’s coming to college a year early. That doesn’t mean anything about anything; it’s just unusual to have your senior division years get…skipped. In the junior F division at 2019 JO Nationals, Finnegan placed 6th all-around with a particularly significant (for Georgia purposes) 3rd place on bars.
Nhyla Bryant makes it three. Bryant qualified to L10 Nationals for the first time in 2019 after a very strong showing at regionals, going on to place 9th on floor in Senior C at nationals. Bryant has consistently scored quite high on both vault and floor throughout her L10 career.
Freshman playlists are now up for the big four conferences, with (probably, most likely, we’ll see) more to come. Because there might be a season?
Although clearly the real sport has become gymnasts publicly calling out the COVID-responsibility levels of other teams, and I am fully here for it. Why have we even been bothering with routines and skills until now? This new sport is so much better.
As always, I try to use YouTube links when possible to provide for full accessibility, but if they’re not available or too old to be relevant, I’ll go with Flo.
Some teams have not finalized their rosters yet, so those are listed as TBC and include the gymnasts who have previously announced commitments to join those schools this coming season—unless we’ve since heard official deferral news about them (e.g. Jordan Chiles, Ana Padurariu, etc.).
For today’s freshman feature, I’m looking at the top JO athletes in this year’s incoming class that I haven’t yet previewed as part of a team’s overall freshman outlook.
Chloe Widner – Stanford
Widner is a Texas Dreams athlete who won the Senior F title at JO Nationals this year, which followed a 6th-place finish in 2018 and a 2nd-place finish in 2017. She’s joining Canadian elite Jade Chrobok in this incoming class for Stanford, one of the most exciting the team has brought in for years.