Clair Kaji returns to Iowa women’s gymnastics for sixth year

After a Big Ten regular season title, Kaji made the decision to return to the mat this winter for the Hawkeyes.


Emily Wangen

Iowa gymnast Clair Kaji prepares to begin her routine on the balance beam during the Gymhawks’ home opener on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Kaji led the Hawkeyes in the beam with 9.800 points. With 195.550 points, the Hawkeyes came out victorious against the Ball State University Cardinals, who came in second with 192.775 points , and the U.S. Air Force Academy Falcons, who earned 188.650 points.

Grant Hall, Sports Reporter

Iowa women’s gymnast Clair Kaji wasn’t sure if she’d return to Iowa City for a sixth year as a Hawkeye in the 2022 season.

After a Big Ten regular season title with the Hawkeyes in 2021, Kaji said her teammates and coaches gave her plenty of space to mull over her decision to return. The NCAA gave all 2020-21 student-athletes an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19.

The three-time All-Big Ten selection spent about two months out of the gym, weighing her options.

At the end of the day, Kaji knew she wasn’t ready to be done with Hawkeye gymnastics. The recent graduate was accepted into the University of Iowa’s master’s program in social work, so she was already planning to stay in Iowa City.

Once her decision was final, she informed her coaches and teammates that she would return to the mat for a sixth season.

“I love my team, I love this sport, I love this university,” Kaji said. “…I don’t think I would have come back for any other team.”

Kaji’s coaches and teammates were ecstatic about the Hawkeye veteran’s return to the gym.

“I wanted it to be on her terms, and I didn’t want her to feel pressured,” head coach Larissa Libby said. “… I wanted her to feel good about making her own choice. Certainly, we’re super excited.”

Teammate Lauren Guerin, a two-time All-American, said she wasn’t surprised when Kaji called her on FaceTime to inform the team of her return.

“None of us were surprised,” Guerin said. “… Just because she has so much love for this team and this sport.”

Kaji has racked up plenty of accolades in her five seasons as a Hawkeye. The incoming sixth-year finished 17th at the NCAA Tournament on beam as a freshman and currently ranks second in program history with a 9.950 score on the beam

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In the 2021 season, Kaji was added to the Big Ten All-Championships team after a runner-up performance on bars. Iowa finished third in the 2021 Big Ten Women’s Gymnastics Championships.

But Kaji’s biggest accomplishment as an athlete, Libby said, was her contribution to the program’s first-ever Big Ten regular season title in 2021. Libby said Kaji had an immense impact on the Hawkeyes’ culture throughout the season.

“She is the heartbeat of the team,” Libby said. “She sets the tone when it comes to discipline and toes the line. She is the best of everything you could ask for in gymnastics.”

Kaji has also stepped into a leadership role within the program by learning to be herself.

“She’s honestly just a really strong leader,” Guerin said. “If it’s holding people accountable or raising the standard within the gym every day … she’s always pushing us to be better.”

Kaji said she learned a lot about herself as an individual while recovering from an Achilles injury in her sophomore season. She said she highly values the coaches’ emphasis on teaching her and her teammates to be more than athletes, and believes she learned that during her recovery.

In her final season with the Hawkeyes, Kaji said she wants to contribute what she can on bars and beam to help the Hawkeyes succeed and win meets.

Kaji said winning a conference title would be extra special this year, as Iowa will host the 2022 Big Ten Women’s Gymnastics Championships on March 19. Iowa City hasn’t been the host site of the event since 2012.