By Alec Stephens
Lindenwood University, a small school nestled by the Missouri River on the outskirts of St. Louis, did not even have a gymnastics program three years ago. Now, they are USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Champions.
This meteoric rise to a national title, led by Head Coach Jen Kesler who is just 25 years old, was punctuated at the USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championships in Philadelphia by a resounding team score of 195.550, the second-highest in the program’s three short years. Kesler can’t attribute the Lady Lions unprecedented success to one particular thing because it was a complete team effort from beginning to end.
“The girls just truly love gymnastics,” Kesler said. “So, we said why not go for it? We knew as a staff that they were capable of it because the talent was there. The potential for them to be phenomenal athletes was there. It’s just that we had to bring it out of them, and they had to believe in themselves.”
Though the end result was what the coaches had hoped for, the journey to the championship was far from easy. During the regular season, Lindenwood lost all but one head-to-head team competition. The early season in particular seemed to present the team with struggles and challenges alike.
“In the beginning of the year, we were dealing with a ton of little injuries,” Kesler said. “And every team goes through it, but this year was way more than any year before. It literally just seemed like week after week there was something new, and it was a different girl every week.”
Battling injuries ranging from broken fingers to ACL and Achilles problems, the Lindenwood gymnastics team was often competing with the deck stacked against them. Add in a bout with the flu and bronchitis and the odds seemed almost insurmountable. Though like many championship teams before them, Lindenwood hit its stride when it mattered most: the postseason.
With the Midwest Independent Conference Tournament looming, the Lady Lions placed third in a competitive meet against No. 14 Oregon State University, San Jose State University, and Seattle Pacific University. Though they were bested by Oregon State and San Jose State, Lindenwood’s team score of 194.125 was encouraging.
“We really took it meet-by-meet and with baby steps,” said Kesler. “Our expectation was to break 190, and we surpassed that. From there, our expectations got a little bit higher because the girls surpassed our expectations.”
Having scored at least 190 in all their previous competitions, the coach’s confidence in the team was high heading into the MIC Tournament where the Lady Lions edged out Texas Women’s University by .050 to take the title. With their first conference title and a huge confidence boost, Lindenwood stormed into the national championship.
The team, which suffered two falls at the MIC Championship, knew it would need a flawless performance to end Bridgeport’s six-year reign as team champions of the USA Gymnastics National Collegiate Championships.
Fortunately for Lindenwood, the only thing lacking in their competitive performance was flaws. Rachel Zabawa set the tone for the team by scoring a 9.900 on the balance beam, which was the team’s Achilles heel to that point.
“She [Zabawa] just nailed everything,” Kesler said. “It was phenomenal. The whole team was going crazy. I think her confidence made everyone on beam line-up have confidence.”
Confidence was the theme for Lindenwood that night.
Despite a health scare -, Valerie Ingui, a junior all-arounder who had heart surgery last year, became nervous when her heart began to race after the semifinal competition. But, the team rallied.
Kesler made the call to pull Ingui out of the floor exercise line-up, and Ingui put on exceptional performances on the other three events. Ingui’s effort resonated with the team and they went on to win the program’s first national team title.
Though freshman Kierstin Sokolowski won two well-deserved individual national titles (all-around and vault), Ingui silently became the hero of the night.
Among the cheering crowd when the team accepted its title, Kesler silently contemplated where her young program goes from here.
“Our goal is to make top 36,” Kesler said. A top 36 ranking earns a team berth to the NCAA Regional Championships. “Why not? In three years, we’ve gone from 64th to 56th, to now 50th. So why not continue to have those goals and set your sights higher?”
Indeed, there’s no reason to think Kesler can’t lead her program to its goal. Her high goals and expectations have worked well for the program so far. The former Oregon State standout has taken the program from the ground up and achieved success quickly.
As Kesler continues to push her team to set its sights higher, the Lindenwood Lady Lions seem destined to succeed.