Iowa women’s gymnastics prepares athletes for post-collegiate life

Head coach Larissa Libby looks back at the women’s gymnastics program and the structure it builds for life beyond college.


Emily Wangen

Iowa gymnastics assistant coach Jennifer Green supports a young Gymhawks fan while she competes in a handstand contest during an inter-squad gymnastics meet on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 at the Field House. The gold team defeated the black team 7-6.

Cassandra Buchholz, Sports Reporter

When you watch the 17 members of the Iowa women’s gymnastics team warm-up for practice, they are just like any other collegiate squad in the country.

They stretch, jump, tape hands, and hydrate. One unique part about this squad compared to others, however, is how much they talk.

Assistant coach Jennifer Green lines up the 17 women. Instead of asking them to start off with some handstands, aerials, or handsprings, Green asks the 18 to 22-year-olds how their week went.

Senior Clair Kaji says that she had a very good chicken salad at Bread Garden the other day. Someone else said they got an A on a chemistry exam. Another gymnast noted that there is a new waffle place in North Liberty that she liked.

In her 20th season with the Hawkeyes — 16th as head coach — Larissa Libby noted the importance of letting her athletes de-stress, understanding the point they are in their lives.

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“It’s part of the culture and philosophy we have built up for the program in making sure that when they leave, their person is separate from them as an athlete.”

The GymHawks not only share good news and information from their week at practice, they also fill out a questionnaire for the training staff to use. Student-athletes at Iowa are always in communication with nutrition and performance staff, regularly discussing what they eat, when they go to bed, or what their stress level is.

“Staff comes back to us and lets us know where everyone is. When it comes to stress, there’s a difference between school stress and life stress. We can control the school stress [with Iowa Student-Athlete Academic Services]. It’s communicating and the life stress we focus on. Nowadays, you have to celebrate the little wins in a day, because life can get rough.”

Sophomore Bridget Killian, who completed a 9.825 performance on vault last weekend against Michigan State, has spent two years with the GymHawks and sees that the practice talks benefit the team.

“I think it’s important to start our day remembering what we’re grateful for and things we enjoyed throughout the week to start out on a positive note.”

While they focus mentally to start, the Hawkeyes still compete at the highest level. Coach Green also asks at practice if all the women have sent in their notes for improvement athletically for the week. The whole team nods.

“Gymnastics is hard. They start when they are three, and it’s engrained in them until they are done,” said Libby. “That may be the hardest part of coaching, having to show them and that their identity is not solely linked to being a gymnast.”

The Iowa women’s gymnastics alumni network is large and growing. At the Feb. 1 dual meet against Michigan State — also alumni night in Carver-Hawkeye Arena — the team celebrated the gymnasts that have come through the program, who either came back or sent in videos to keep fans up to date.

Academic All-Big Ten all-around Lanie Snyder from the class of 2018 sent in a homemade video to Hawkeye fans that played on the center court jumbotron. She noted her gratitude to the program and how it’s shaped her today.

Snyder, now a 7th grade teacher, showed her students cheering for her in the background as they watched old videos of her floor routine.

“It’s not just four years. See you later. Bye. Where you go, what you do, and who you are will always be a reflection of us,” Libby said. “So I want to make sure that I’ve catered to that part of you when you go through this program.”