April 20, 2009
IOWA CITY, IA – After senior Jenifer Simbhudas fell to the ground in the middle of her floor routine at NCAA Regionals April 4, Head Coach Larissa Libby looked around at her team. She had seen the look on their faces six times before.
The GymHawks had already seen a few of their teammates go down with season-ending injuries, but this was the worse. This was different. In the middle of the Iowa’s biggest meet of the year, Simbhudas, Iowa’s senior leader and most polished gymnast, would suffer a knee injury and not return to competition.
Libby huddled her team together. She looked at each of her gymnasts and sent them a message.
“Take that look off your face,” Libby told her team. “We’ve got a meet to finish.”
Iowa would go on to finish sixth at the regional competition, ending its season and any dream of nationals. The loss of yet another senior due to injury was obviously devastating to the GymHawks’ chances, but they continued to battle, not counting a fall on the their last two events (vault and bars).
“They responded with as much enthusiasm as they had any time before,” Libby said. “They showed a lot of guts.”
It’s been 16 days since the GymHawks’ season ended. With time to look back and reflect, Libby can’t help but think, “What if?”
“Why us? Why did this happen with such great kids?” Libby said. “There aren’t any answers. We were in great physical shape, we were prepared and we went hard every night. We’ve got to let it go and forget it for next year.”
The GymHawks came into the season with 21 healthy gymnasts; four seniors, two juniors, six sophomores and nine freshmen. They finished the season with 14.
Seven gymnasts, one-third of Iowa’s roster, weren’t healthy at season’s end. Three of them were seniors. In addition to Simbhudas, Brittany Logan didn’t compete this year due to lingering shoulder issues. Kara Pinjuv was on pace for a very promising end to her career before a mid-season leg injury forced her to sit for the rest of her senior campaign. Even Brandi Loffer, an all-around competitor last year as a junior, didn’t make her season debut until early February, with knee injuries limiting her to bars and beam.
Sophomores Kelly Galau and Kristen Ward both suffered season-ending knee injuries, while Becky Blahyj dealt with a bothersome shin. Freshman Heather Fomon was slated to make her collegiate debut at Southern Utah before injuring her foot.
Libby knows this season would be different if she had her full complement of players.
“It seemed almost surreal,” Libby said. “I feel so bad for the team, but most of all for our seniors. Those kids have done so much for this team and helped shape this team’s image. For them to end their careers with an injury just isn’t fair.”
If there is any silver lining in the injury-ridden season that was, many of Iowa’s underclassmen got valuable experience at the collegiate level. Four of Iowa’s nine-member freshmen class cracked the lineup on a consistent basis, including Rachel Corcoran (vault), Jennie Schurman (bars) and Annie Szatkowski (vault). But the star of the freshmen class was Iowa native Jessa Hansen.
“I learned that you don’t throw the towel in when things go wrong. Our whole team has been challenged this season. We’ve faced adversity every step of the way and have faced it head-on. This experience will pay us dividends in the future, and that future couldn’t look brighter from where I’m sitting.”
Hansen competed on bars, beam and floor in every meet this season. Her top event was floor exercise, where she dazzled the crowd on more than one occasion, scoring higher than a 9.8 four times. The highlight of her season came at the regionals when she wowed the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd with a 9.9 on floor exercise, good enough for a share of third place and a spot on the podium.
With one season under her belt, Libby believes Hansen is destined to have a great career in Black and Gold.
“She surpassed my expectations,” Libby said. “We thought she would need a year to get prepared, but she really blossomed as a gymnast. She was put in so many tough situations but she never let it get to her. She just went out and did her thing every night.”
Iowa’s sophomore class also made vast improvements. Houry Gebeshian won five all-around titles this season on her way to being named first team all-Big Ten. Rebecca Simbhudas broke out of her older sister’s shadow, competing as an all-around competitor in 10 of Iowa’s 13 meets.
“They are in control of their gymnastics,” said Libby. “They want success on their terms and they want a championship. There is talent and a load of potential there.”
Like Hansen for the freshmen class, Libby thinks sophomore Arielle Sucich is poised to have a breakout season in 2010. While she may have been overshadowed at times by her sophomore teammates, Sucich competed on vault, bars and floor in every meet this season.
“Arielle was absolutely amazing this year,” Libby said. “She was our go-to person. She pushes herself so hard every day. When we asked her to back off, she said no. She’s our rock.”
As for Jenifer Simbhudas, she ends her career as one of the best gymnasts in Iowa history. Despite never qualifying for nationals, Simbhudas is one of only six gymnasts in school history to be named all-Big Ten three times in her career. She was a second team all-Big Ten selection as a sophomore and was named to the first team last year and then again this year. In addition, Simbhudas recorded two of the best floor scores in Iowa history: a 9.95 in 2008 (tie for second-best all-time) and a 9.925 this year (tie for third-best all-time). Prior to her injury, Simbhudas scored team season-highs on vault, floor and in the all-around.
Iowa finished the 2009 season with a regular season record of 10-5, including a 2-2 mark in Big Ten dual meets and a 4-1 tally at home. They finished seventh at the Big Ten Championships and held a 7-3 mark against ranked opponents. Two of those wins came against in-state rival Iowa State, whom Iowa swept for the first time since 1992.
Of her five years as a head coach, Libby calls this season the most challenging and most rewarding of them all. For her efforts in guiding the GymHawks to back-to-back regionals appearances and 10-win seasons, Libby was named Coach of the Year for the NCAA North Central region. While her gymnasts have grown, so has she as a coach.
“I learned that you don’t throw the towel in when things go wrong,” Libby said. “Our whole team has been challenged this season. We’ve faced adversity every step of the way and have faced it head-on. This experience will pay us dividends in the future, and that future couldn’t look brighter from where I’m sitting.”