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Illinois Women’s Gymnastics is a Dark Horse Big Ten Contender

The Illini defeated No. 7 Kentucky.

This is a guest column by former Cornell Big Red gymnast Karen Braun, whose passion for and experience in the sport of gymnastics compel her to share her insights on our Fighting Illini. Enjoy!

The Illinois Fighting Illini women’s gymnastics team narrowly lost to Oregon State on Sunday in a four-way competition held in Huff Hall, but Illinois’ defeat of No. 7 Kentucky and the Illini’s substantial improvement over the previous week’s score (by over 2 points) shows great promise for the 2019 season. In a sport where the smallest fraction of a point can separate the winners from the losers, the Illini need to draw upon their experience to put together 24 consistent routines week-in and week-out to work their way up the rankings, and potentially into the post-season.

The women’s team will look to improve its national ranking for the third year in a row. Last year they finished the season ranked 19th, good for fourth in the conference. The team snagged a third-place finish at Big Ten championships in 2018. With just two meets in the books this year, Illinois sits 36th nationally with plenty of time to rise.

The Illini are returning most of their routines from the previous season after losing 2018 Big Ten beam champion Bridget Hodan and vault and bar specialist Jordyn Givens to graduation. Junior Rae Balthazor, who in 2018 was named a second-team All-American on floor exercise, and sophomore Nicole Biondi will lead the Illini this season as all-around competitors.

The only Illini freshman to see action thus far is Texan Shaylah Scott, who has competed floor in both meets.

With many veterans in the lineup, the Illini have a chance to challenge conference bigwigs such as Michigan, who has finished atop the Big Ten rankings at the end of regular season every year since 2013. The Wolverines won their fifth straight conference title last year.

But there is a lot of work yet to be done, and other Big Ten teams will also be hungry for a Michigan upset and a berth in the NCAA National Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 19-20.


In NCAA women’s gymnastics, for each of the four events, six gymnasts compete for each team. The lowest of the six scores aren’t counted towards the total, and gymnasts can do as many or as few events as the team assigns. Each event is scored on a 10-point scale, but not all routines are created equal; each routine has a maximum score based on its difficulty. Only the most difficult routines are scored out of 10, so 10.0 is more than a perfect score: it’s a perfect score on the hardest level of routine. Gymnasts who compete in all four events in one meet are eligible for the All-Around competition; the team competition has a maximum possible score of 200.


One thing seemingly holding the Illini back is power and endurance on vault and floor. Some of the gymnasts have lost valuable marks on floor tumbling by landing the passes too low with their chests down, indicating under-rotation. Landings also must be controlled, and this is another easy place to give away crucial tenths.

The Illini’s vaults are a bit lacking in the sense that they have no routines with a starting score of 10 (i.e. a Yurchenko-1.5 twist). Teams without 10.0 vaults can find it difficult to compete at a championship level because the nation’s elite teams will use these almost exclusively.

However, it is still early in the season and many teams around the country are still working out the kinks, testing their line-ups, and building up to more difficult routines. Teams usually gain endurance throughout the season and build on their earlier scores, so the Illini have time to hone their skills.

Michigan is by far the best vaulters of the conference and are ranked third in the nation after two weeks. Last week, two of the Wolverine’s six vaults had a starting value of 10, and their 9.95 vaults were very strong. Michigan has topped out at 49.35 on vault this season while the Illini lag with a high of 48.875.

Illinois is ranked fifth in the conference on floor, but their average is only two-tenths of a point away from top-ranked Ohio State. Floor is also the only rotation yet this season where Illinois has posted a score of 49 (averaging 9.8). Sophomore Kylie Noonan sits atop the Big Ten floor rankings after week two being the only gymnast in the conference to have broken the 9.9-mark.


The Illini struggled on bars in their first meet, having to count at least two falls and several other major mistakes in its team score. They came back strong in week two with a 48.9, and senior Mary Jane Otto snagged the bars title with a 9.875 in the quad meet against No. 7 Kentucky, Oregon State, and Lindenwood.

The poor start on bars leaves the Illini ranked eighth in the conference after two meets. The top three — Michigan, Minnesota, and Penn State — all hold an average score above 49.

Beam is an event that can sometimes defeat even the top-ranked teams, but the Illini have yet to count a fall in their team score after two meets. There is room for improvement, however, as the squad averages 48.525 on the apparatus.

The tumbling series on beam are looking strong so far, but a little more aggressiveness and assertion will go a long way for the dance elements. The gymnasts will need to ensure that leaps hit the required 180 degrees and that various skills are connected to secure bonus points. Otto also took the beam title in Sunday’s meet with a 9.875.

Nebraska tops the conference rankings on beam with a 49 average, but the sixth-place Illini sit less than a half a point back. Having to count falls on beam can drop a team like a rock in the rankings this early in the season, so Illinois is sitting in a good spot.


The 2018 women’s Fighting Illini finished the regular season with an average team score of 195.704, good for 23rd place nationally, though their final AP ranking was 19th. At the end of the regular season, the team averaged 48.848 on vault (35th overall), 48.921 on bars (19th overall), 48.95 on beam (15th overall), and 48.985 on floor (30th overall).

The balance beam has been the Illini’s most consistent event in recent years, as the team’s final beam ranking has been higher than the other events for the last seven seasons, including a pair of No. 9 rankings in 2014 and 2016.

The 2019 squad will host Maryland on Saturday, Jan. 19 at 2 p.m. CT in Huff Hall. Mark Friday, Feb. 8 on your calendars: Illinois is pushing to break the attendance record for this sport at Huff Hall when they host Michigan State.

Karen Braun has forgotten more about gymnastics than our writing staff knows about football.

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