Regal, enthusiastic, fierce competitors.
These are some of the words Derek Galvin, the North Carolina gymnastics head coach, used when describing a few of his seniors after his team beat George Washington,196.325-195.500, and posted a season-high score on senior night.
“They made this their team, and that’s what we asked them to do at the beginning of the year,” Galvin said. “I said, ‘This is your team. You take them where you want to take them, and I’ll drive the van. You tell me where you want to go.’”
Galvin added a few other descriptive words that highlighted how the group of eight seniors handled the meet: grace, grit and gratitude.
Alexis Allen couldn’t help but smirk ever so slightly during her 9.825 beam routine as she landed each turn and flip, embodying confidence on the 16.4-foot by 4-inch piece of wood.
“From freshman year, my mentality on beam has been to be a snail,” Allen said. “Year by year, I’ve kept that little mentality. This year especially, our coaches ingrained in us that we got to love every moment, and we have to be sharks up there."
“From the minute I started before I got on the beam, I said, ‘Be a shark.’”
During her routine, Khazia Hislop stood poised on the beam, hitting every move as her teammates’ cheers echoed behind her. It wasn’t until she stuck the landing that Hislop showed any emotion.
As the final notes of Maroon 5’s "Sunday Morning" played in Carmichael Arena, the senior threw her hands up, smiling from ear to ear, as her teammates ran across the mats to congratulate her on the 9.825 routine.
The purity of the sport in that moment is something Galvin has been reminded of on multiple occasions this year. The head coach said the team helped him appreciate "the beauty and joy of the sport" more in this year than seasons past.
A few moments later, Galvin stood near the balance beam while his team competed on floor, clapping along with pride as he watched Jamie Antinori nail each step. He threw his arms to the side as the senior landed her flip in front of him.
“She’s one of the most delightful people I’ve ever met in my life,” Galvin said. “ ... brilliant student, brilliant person. There's joy in everything she does. Everyone on the team recognizes that if they attempt to match her work ethic, they’re going to be doing very well. She works harder than everybody else.”
Antinori, Hislop and Allen are just a few of the seniors that have helped lead the UNC gymnastics program on the competition floor over the years. It’s one of the largest senior classes North Carolina has seen in several years.
Some, like Mekyllah Williams, faced what should have been career-ending injuries, but continued to compete in pain. Others, like "fireball" Emily White and undergraduate student assistant coach Emma Marchese, had to take a step back as gymnastics took a toll on their bodies. Despite it all, eight athletes remained with the team throughout all four years.
“When you’re a freshman, having your own senior night seems so far away,” Hislop said. “It’s just so far in the distance that you can’t even see it almost. The fact that we made it here through all the injuries, and the school and everything that comes with the sport, I’m just so grateful that we all made it here, and we’re all together.”
When it was all said and done, the scores didn’t matter as much to the team as they normally would. Yes, the season-high meant something to the Tar Heels. Continuing a 196-plus point streak meant something. Posting a 48.850 on bars, their second-highest score this season, meant something. But it was evident that the priority for North Carolina was each other.
As Hislop nailed her final move in her floor routine, her teammates didn’t hesitate rushing the mat. The senior was the last one to perform on Friday night, and out of everything that happened, the final moment was her favorite.
“It just showed me how loved I am,” Hislop said. “ ... it made the whole night come together perfectly, just being surrounded by everyone I love. It meant a lot.”
The emotion was evident as a sense of finality and nostalgia consumed the room after the match. Old family photos of the seniors flashed across the screen, bringing tears to some Tar Heels' eyes.
“They’re my sisters,” Allen said. “And I love them.”
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