Graceful exits, new beginnings for Hunter and Peszek
posted on 04/30/2015

© Erin Long

By Jo-Ann Barnas - Special to USA Gymnastics

The observation was poignant and well timed. It also mirrored precisely what Kytra Hunter was thinking during the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships in Fort Worth, Texas.

Hunter was preparing for warm-ups on balance beam in the individual event finals on April 19 when Samantha Peszek looked over and smiled.

“It’s almost like it’s 2009 national championships right now,” Peszek said.

Hunter knew exactly what she was talking about.

“It was like a little reunion,” she said.

The time-machine moment Peszek was referencing was the 2009 Visa Championships – held also in Texas – when Peszek, Hunter, Bridget Sloan, Ivana Hong and Kayla Williams were teammates on the U.S. women’s national team.

And now here they were, six years later, winding down their collegiate careers together in Texas for their respective college teams: Florida (Hunter and Sloan), UCLA (Peszek), Stanford (Hong) and Alabama (Williams). Hong, a senior, announced after the NCAAs that she’ll return for a fifth year after previously redshirting due to an ACL injury. Sloan is a junior and will compete next season, as well.

“It just really struck home to see so many national team members (at NCAAs) were doing really well and loving the sport,’’ Peszek said. “It shows how passionate we were about our sport as national team members, and for our college teams.”

Each of the “Niners" finished on a high note in Fort Worth. Hunter and Pezsek tied for the NCAA women’s all-around title with matching 39.600 totals. Pezsek also captured her second NCAA beam title.

In addition to claiming her second all-around title, Hunter won the floor exercise title in Fort Worth and, with Sloan and their Gator teammates, earned their third-straight NCAA team title.

Sloan was also runner-up to Stanford’s Elizabeth Price on vault, and took second on uneven bars. Hong was runner-up to Peszek on beam, while Williams tied for third on vault.

The gymnasts were all teenagers together at 2009 U.S. championships in Dallas. Sloan, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist, won the all-around title and the uneven bars and floor exercise crowns that year. She followed up one stellar performance with another by winning the gold medal in the all-around at the World Championships in London.

Hong, meanwhile, finished a close second to Sloan in the all-around and won the U.S. balance beam title. She then went on and captured the bronze medal on beam at Worlds that fall.

Williams was the U.S. and World gold medalist on vault; Hunter was the U.S. bronze medalist on floor, while Peszek earned a silver medal at nationals on beam.

Hunter and Peszek both agree that tying for the NCAA all-around title in their final competition in gymnastics was a fitting way to end their careers.

“It was definitely cool and I was real happy sharing the all-around title with her because it means so much to both of us,” Hunter said. “We used to compete against each other and train at the Ranch together, so we’ve all come a long way and to be able to end it the way we did was definitely memorable.”

Peszek will graduate in June from UCLA with a degree in communications. Hunter said she’s set to graduate in December with a degree in food and resource economics.

Peszek said she plans to work the camp circuit this summer and will be part of the broadcast team for USA Gymnastics at this summer’s P&G Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis, where she grew up. She said she plans to still make her home base in Los Angeles.

Although her gymnastics career is over, Peszek finds it amusing – and comforting – that she maintains a disciplined schedule.

“I work out everyday,” Peszek said. “But I am managing my time a bit differently now. It’s surreal to think about it, that it’s over – but I couldn’t wish for a better storybook ending.”

Hunter said she dedicated her success at NCAAs to her coach, Rhonda Faehn, who is leaving Florida to become senior vice president of USA Gymnastics’ women’s program.

“She definitely just touched my life a lot and I’ve definitely grown as a person because of her,” Hunter said of Faehn. “She’s like my second mom. I didn’t go out with a bang for myself; I went out with a bang for her.”