Zach McKinley / The Daily Gamecock

"For the love of the sport": gymnasts find new experiences, spark old talent

Some athletes end their careers after high school because of an injury or because the sport isn’t offered at a collegiate level. This was the case for gymnasts at the University of South Carolina until last year.

South Carolina started a club gymnastics team in spring 2018 and started competing this year against other colleges with club teams.

The club is open to any student, with or without a gymnastics background, and there is no tryout process. The option to join is open year-round and has a different competition compared to what former gymnasts have experienced. The club team is run by students, and does not have a coach.

Alexis Kahl, a third-year global supply chain and operations management student, began her gymnastics career at the age of three and had to stop after high school, until last year when she started competing as a Gamecock on the club team.

“Usually in high school you do all four events. You can scratch, but normally the coaches encourage you to do all four events to compete in all around. In club, you don’t have to,” said Kahl, a Columbia native.

Kahl competed at level nine for five years. She placed third all around at the Easterns competition in Virginia Beach her senior year of high school.

“I am really competitive, I wanna be better than everyone else,” Kahl said. “I want to have the best skills.”

Each Gamecock has to feed off of each other in practices while keeping encouragement at the forefront even though they do not have a coach, Kahl said. 

“Growing up I had a coach who wanted everything to be perfect, so I know what gymnastics is supposed to look like and if it doesn’t, then I'm not going to do it,” Kahl said.

Because of Kahl’s gymnastics background she can rely on her old coach and what she learned competing in the events. Kahl’s former coach, Lauren Walker, is now her current boss at Soda City gymnastics, where she works helping gymnasts sign up for classes.

Walker started coaching Kahl when she was a sophomore in high school and their connection has continued through her collegiate experience. 

“She helps out a little bit with making sure my routines are good enough to put out there,” Kahl said. “I can consult her to make sure all my skills are what I should be doing out there. Nothing too much, but not too little.”

One of Kahl’s goals for the 2020 season is to compete in the decathlon where she will compete in all four women’s events and all six men’s events. This opportunity is open to any male or female on the team who wants to compete the other's events.

“I’m sure she would do great at it 'cause her tenacity level is very high. She is going to try, she is going to commit to it," Walker said. "It'll be interesting to see how much she progresses at the end, in her senior year.”

In addition to Walker, Kahl has reconnected with two former friends during her time so far on the club team, sisters Emma and Madison Kenney.

Third-year experimental psychology student Madison Kenney went to the same gym as Kahl when they were young. The two had lost touch as the years went on, but now they are usually together in the gym.

Kahl said that all three women are a package deal, especially when riding to competitions or staying the night in hotels before meets.

"I remember we'll talk like on our car rides to meets about stuff that we used to do as kids," Madison Kenney said. "I didn't really remember until she brought it up."

Their previous experience in the gym has given them the means to bounce creative ideas off of each other to help prepare their routines. 

Due to the openness of the gymnastics club, graduate student Emma Kenney was able to continue to pursue her passion even after she graduated college.

“She has definitely taught me a lot more skills because it has been a solid five years since I have done gymnastics and so just getting back into it, she's been a really good coach for it,” Emma Kenney said.

Despite not having a coach, the club has a president, third-year student Lily Baker who competes as well. 

Last spring semester, Baker began the process of looking into how to start a club team at South Carolina. In order to fulfill this goal, she had to write a constitution, attend meetings and figure out funding. 

“It was a long process,” Baker said. “We got started up basically at the very end of last semester, we got to do a few practices, and then it didn’t really take full force until this year.”

Baker coaches at Carolina Gymnastics, where the Gamecocks hold their Sunday and Wednesday practices. South Carolina practices for free due to the connection that Baker has with the owner of Carolina gymnastics.

The club offers both a competitive and a recreational team. Each competition has a fee along with travel costs and uniform purchases. The recreational team does not compete, but a $50 fee for the semester is required.

For competition, each player's routine is required to meet The National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs (NAIGC) codes for level nine gymnasts. South Carolina competed its first meet of the semester at Clemson, where the women placed third and the men placed second.

Baker said that if someone is interested in joining, she tells them to just show up to a practice so the process can run smoother.

Whether it's spotting their teammates at vault or cheering each other on, Madison Kenney said that gymnastics is definitely a team sport. 

“The big motto for NAIGC, which is the league that we compete for, is 'for the love of the sport,' which is what I tell people to think about. Really, you're not doing this to get serious in competitions," Baker said. "It’s more for fun and like just to enjoy the sport of gymnastics and that’s what we do here."

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