There are approximately 100 African American and other student-athletes of color this school year at the University of Minnesota. In an occasional series throughout the 2017-18 school and sports year, the MSR will highlight many of these players.
This week: senior gymnasts Ciara Gardner and Jalon Stephens
Gymnastics is a sport where its participants usually start out at young ages. Ciara Gardner and Jalon Stephens recently were asked what makes a good gymnast.
“Someone who is humble and really a team player, and really uses their talent to the best of their ability to help their teammates,” Gardner responded.
“I honestly think the people that we surround ourselves [with]” helps in this regard, Stephens added.
A Shreveport, Louisiana native, Stephens virtually got his start in gymnastics in the bathroom as a preschooler: As a four-year-old, “I was trying to flip on the shower [rod] and it broke” Stephens remembers. His mother later enrolled him in a gymnastics class. “The coaches saw me and thought I had real talent. They put me on the team,” he said proudly.
Stephens, one of 10 Gopher seniors on this year’s squad, won the vault at the 2013 USA Gymnastics Junior Olympics and then finished fifth on the high bar at the 2014 USA Gymnastics Junior Nationals. It was at one such national meet that the young man overcame a big hurdle and faced his biggest challenge at the time.
“I hyperextended my knee before that competition,” Stephens pointed out. His parents then offered him the choice to stay home or keep going, and he opted for the latter. “On the way there my leg was swollen,” and after a practice day “my leg had swollen to the point it was unbearable. I didn’t break anything. But I also had a goal – I wanted to do my best at nationals.”
The Texas-born Gardner, one of four Gopher seniors, last month helped Minnesota post the program’s second-highest ever floor mark with a 9.825 on the beam in a meet against Ohio State. She also recorded a 9.928 for a third-place tie in the floor.
“I would like to get 9.9-pluses in every event I compete in this season,” she told us. “I also want to accomplish all the goals we set as a team.”
“I think we are going to thrive as a team and have a great last season for the 10 seniors,” Stephens declared. He and three teammates last weekend competed in the 2018 Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas, the second consecutive appearance for Stephens, where he finished 23rd last year.
Both Gardner and Stephens expect to graduate this spring, him with a kinesiology degree and her with a communications degree. He plans to stay in the area after graduation “to pursue my dreams…hoping to make [the USA team in the] 2020 Olympics.”
“I have about three more classes left,” Gardner added. After graduation, “What I hope to do with that [degree] is work with athletic communications either for a university or a professional sports team,” she said. “I want to do social media, but also do marketing for a team.”
Both Gopher squads are in action this weekend – the men Saturday at Penn State, and the women Friday in a three-team meet in Ames, Iowa.
The Larry Nassar case – the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor who was sentenced earlier this month to 40 to 175 years in prison for over two decades of sexual abuse of women and girls gymnasts – was in the news at the time of our interviews. When asked her thoughts, Gardner said, “I’m glad that he got sentenced. It’s up to USAG (USA Gymnastics) to make sure that a situation like this don’t happen again.”
Gardner believes there’s still some good gymnastics left in her despite her collegiate career winding down. “I feel I have not reached my peak,” she said. “I feel I have a lot more I can bring, way more potential I can reach.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.