Underclassmen Making Impression For GymHawks

Jan. 28, 2009

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Jessa Hansen’s collegiate gymnastics debut didn’t exactly go as planned.

It was Jan. 9, and the GymHawks started the season at home by hosting then-No. 7 LSU and Southeast Missouri State. Head coach Larissa Libby scheduled Hansen on three events – uneven bars, balance beam and floor.

The start of Hansen’s routine on uneven bars, her first official event as a member of the Iowa program, was flawless. Hansen was coasting along, reminiscent of her days inside Chow’s Gym in Des Moines, until she lost her grip on the top bar, causing a fall. She finished with a score of 8.825.

“I let the pressure get to me,” recalled Hansen. “I didn’t handle my nerves very well.”

After her slip-up on bars, Hansen had little time to recover, as beam would be next. The freshman didn’t get rattled, and turned out a solid 9.6 performance on beam before capping the night off with a 9.775 on floor. Hansen credits her mental approach as the reason she was able to recover.

“I treated the other two events differently,” Hansen said. “I told myself I could do it.”

“Jessa has always had the potential,” added Libby. “She’s so proud to be a Hawkeye. If she could lay her life down for this team, she would.”

Hansen is one of nine freshmen on this year’s squad, the largest freshmen class in Libby’s five-year tenure. Throw in six sophomores and 15 of Iowa’s 21 athletes are underclassmen.

Libby is giving them chances to shine. Against LSU and Southeast Missouri State, Libby put five freshmen in the lineup. In addition to Hansen, Rachel Corcoran (vault), Melissa Miller (beam), Jennie Schurman (bars, floor) and Annie Szatkowski (vault) all got their first taste of collegiate gymnastics. In this sport, Libby believes, experience trumps all and her nine-member freshmen class is making strides inside the gym.

“We have a class that pushes to be in the lineup every time out,” Libby said. “The competition level increases every day. I think it’s teaching them how to get that competitive edge.”

But the freshmen aren’t the only ones gaining competition experience. Sophomore Arielle Sucich competed only a handful of times as a freshman one year ago while seeing fellow classmates Houry Gebeshian and Rebecca Simbhudas compete on a regular basis. Sucich wanted desperately to show what she could do.

“Jessa has always had the potential, She’s so proud to be a Hawkeye. If she could lay her life down for this team, she would.”

UI Women’s Gymnastics Coach Larissa Libby on Hawkeye Jessa Hansen

Her workout regiment changed. During the off-season, Sucich had cardio workouts three times-a-week, in addition to practicing her routines every day. Her hard work and patience paid off, as Sucich has competed on three events in each of Iowa’s first three meets so far this season.

“Being on the other side gives you a different perspective,” said Sucich. “I learned a lot from sitting out, but words can’t describe how excited I am to contribute in another way this season.”

Like Sucich and Hansen, junior Andrea Hurlburt got her first glimpse of collegiate competition this season. She joined the team as a sophomore after spending her freshman season participating in club gymnastics. The former walk-on from Waterloo, IA, Hurlburt realized she was falling behind the rest of her teammates. She even entertained the idea of quitting the team.

“I was too critical of myself,” Hurlburt said. “It was hard to watch last year knowing that I could help the team, but I had to find other ways to help out.”

Now, Hurlburt’s heart cannot be questioned. At Michigan State on Jan. 17, Libby penned Hurlburt to lead the meet off for Iowa on balance beam and scored a 9.6. Though the other five of her teammates finished with higher scores than she did, Hurlburt set the pace for the GymHawks and Iowa went on to win the meet with a total score of 194.350.

“To have this opportunity means so much to me,” Hurlburt said. “I am glad I stuck with it.”

Despite the youth and inexperience, Libby thinks the performances of her underclassmen show the bright future the Iowa program has in store. The focus, still, is on the here and now.

“I think mid-way through the year, they will be more sound in their routines,” Libby said. “Right now, they feel the pressure to be like the upperclassmen. They have nerves and fears, but they also have potential. We’ve got the components to be a very dangerous team.”