Feb. 26, 2009
IOWA CITY — This isn’t a meet, but Iowa senior Jenifer Simbhudas has been here hundreds of times before. She stands next to the balance beam at one end, head draped down to the floor in complete concentration. Every set of eyes inside the practice gym at the UI Fieldhouse are fixed on her.
Ten seconds go by. No words, no noises. Silence.
Her head pops up, staring straight towards the other end of the gym. She runs toward the other end of the beam and hoists herself up, signaling the beginning of her routine.
“Come on, Jen,” cheers Andrea Hurlburt.
“Let’s get it, Jen,” shouts Annie Szatkowski.
The cheering doesn’t stop, nor does it faze Simbhudas. One minute later, she dismounts off the beam and sticks a landing, drawing even more support from her coaches and teammates.
This Saturday night is designated “Senior Night” for Iowa gymnastics, as Simbhudas, Brandi Loffer, Brittany Logan and Kara Pinjuv will be honored after to their dual meet with Maryland. Though they still have one home meet remaining after this one (March 6 vs. Kentucky), head coach Larissa Libby decided her seniors needed a proper send-off in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“Losing these kids is going to be brutal,” said Libby. “They have shaped the culture of our team and changed how people look at Iowa gymnastics. They have taken our team where we want to go.”
Joining Simbhudas in the lineup is Loffer, who continues to make her way back to full health after an early season injury. After being one of Iowa’s strongest competitors last season as a junior, she injured both her knees this past November while practicing her bar routine. It was an injury that sidelined her for almost the entire first half of the competitive season.
Loffer admits she lost some confidence, but is getting it back slowly with each passing day. She isn’t quite 100 percent yet, but she knows her time is running out.
“I feel guilty, like I am cheating the team,” said Loffer. “I know I can give more, but I can’t change what happened in the past. Good experiences or bad, they shape you into who you are.”
Missing in action this Saturday night will be Pinjuv (leg) and Logan (shoulder), who are both sidelined for the remainder of the season. Combine their injuries with others suffered to sophomores Kelly Galau (knee), Kristen Ward (knee) and most recently Heather Fomon (ankle), Libby is getting used to having her 12 other underclassmen learn some “on the job” training.
“Our team is not ready to quit. No way,” said Libby. “Injuries cannot change the overall plan of the season.”
Iowa’s success, Libby says, starts with the seniors and each of them share a unique bond. When she named head coach in 2005, her first recruiting trip was to visit the home of Pat and Pam Pinjuv in Reno, Nev., to see if their daughter, Kara, would compete collegiately at Iowa. She accepted.
Before suffering her season-ending injury Feb. 6 at Ohio State, Pinjuv was possibly having her best season as a GymHawk. In the lineup for three events, Pinjuv scored season-highs of 9.8 on vault, 9.85 on balance beam and 9.9 on floor. As a junior in 2008, Pinjuv tied for 10th on balance beam at the Big Ten Championships (9.8) and tied for 14th on vault at NCAA Regionals (9.8). She is also an excellent student, being a two-time academic all-Big Ten selection.
Losing Pinjuv, one of Iowa’s more refined gymnasts, was heartbreaking for Libby.
“You cannot replace a person like that,” said Libby. “What we lost that day was a team leader in every aspect of the word. Her demeanor, strength, character, personality and lastly her gymnastics, but there is a gaping hole without that smile in the gym every day. She is one of those people that is just irreplaceable.”
Pinjuv has aspirations of medical school and Libby jokes that Pinjuv should become the team doctor after she graduates.
“Losing these kids is going to be brutal. They have shaped the culture of our team and changed how people look at Iowa gymnastics. They have taken our team where we want to go.”
Head Coach Larissa Libby
Logan transferred from Central Michigan in January 2007, giving up a full scholarship for the Chippewas in turn for being a walk-on at Iowa. Logan’s specialty is uneven bars, and as a junior last season, she made the lineup four times, highlighted by a 9.75 performance against Iowa State. Like Pinjuv, her senior season was cut short due to injuries, but that hasn’t stopped Logan from being whatever Libby needs her to be.
“She’s a true teammate in every sense of the word and a good-hearted person,” said Libby. “You don’t find a better person than Brittany Logan. She has dealt with her role on the team with such grace. She’s made sacrifices to help the team and she does whatever is needed.”
For the first time in her coaching career, Libby has a roster full of gymnasts she recruited. Each of the 21 GymHawks were recruited by Libby and her staff, and it began with the recruitment of these four seniors.
The connection for Simbhudas is on a more personal level. She was 12 years old when she was first introduced to Libby at a gym outside Unionville, Ontario. Both Libby and Simbhudas trained under the same coach, Leonid Grakovsky and have Canadian ties. Libby went to Canada three or four different times to watch her compete and when Simbhudas was looking at potential colleges, she didn’t have to look far to know Iowa was the place for her.
“These coaches have taught me so much,” said Simbhudas. “They’ve given me a broader look at life and how to take initiative for myself.”
“She has a talent that is absolutely untapped,” added Libby. “She gets the job done and always puts the team first. For the first time in her career, the younger girls are pushing her to be her best, including her sister (Rebecca Simbhudas). She is a classier, cleaner, stronger gymnast because of that.”
Simbhudas qualified for NCAA Regionals each of the past two seasons, but each time, something went wrong. As a sophomore in 2007, she had an uncharacteristic fall off balance beam which prevented her from moving on to nationals. And last year, Simbhudas injured herself on the last event (bars), once again washing away any chance at a possible trip to nationals.
The Markham, Ontario, native is once again proving she is one of Iowa’s top gymnasts. This season, Simbhudas has recorded season-highs of 9.875 on vault, 9.825 on balance beam and uneven bars and a 9.925 on floor exercise. She was a first team all-Big Ten selection last year and named Big Ten Gymnast of the Week twice. Like Loffer, Simbhudas knows the door to nationals is rapidly closing.
“There’s an extra drive to make it, absolutely,” said Simbhudas. “It’s now or never.”
With the weeks counting down, Simbhudas and her Iowa teammates want a strong finish. But for Simbhudas, the end of the season marks her last chance at reaching her ultimate goal — standing on the podium at all three post-season levels: Big Ten Championships, NCAA Regionals and the NCAA Championships.
However, there’s one goal she has yet to accomplish.
“I still need that perfect 10.0 on floor,” said Simbhudas.
And she has six weeks left to get it.