With COVID-19 sweeping across the nation, this season has been uniquely challenging for college athletes.
So, when the North Carolina gymnastics team capped off its 11-2 season with a fifth-place finish in the EAGL Championships this past weekend, coaches and athletes alike found the season finale to be a little extra special.
“The hard thing this year was just making all the sacrifices,” interim head coach Marie Denick said. “We did everything as a team. We kept our practices to smaller groups, but got to practice altogether, which was fantastic. The sacrifices made all the girls appreciate the opportunity that they had.”
When traveling to road events, UNC kept its rooming arrangements in the hotel similar to how they live on campus, and the bubble environment created a unique set of challenges that brought the team closer together.
Although practices were also modified, the Tar Heels worked everyday to perfect their craft.
“What made this team so special was that we are all so different,” sophomore Elizabeth Culton said. “We were able to really grow as a team with COVID going on. We had a lot of adversity and had to adopt to a lot of changes this year, and I think that ultimately made us a stronger team."
Culton earned two EAGL awards this season and is the only Tar Heel competing in the 2021 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Regionals on April 2. The Durham native led the team in the floor exercise, uneven bars, balance beam and all-around scoring at the EAGL Championships.
“(Culton) has a great set of foundation skills,” Denick said. “The way she does gymnastics is really technically correct, and she makes her gymnastics look very effortless and easy, and obviously it is neither.”
While Culton’s foundational skills are superb, Denick also praised her work ethic and how she uses film to improve her technique.
“She is an extremely hard worker and is a very analytical gymnast,” Denick said. “She really thinks about corrections and tries to feel them with her body while thinking about them with her mind.”
For as talented as Culton is, she doesn’t compete alone. That’s where redshirt first-year Hallie Thompson comes in.
After tearing her ACL in 2020 and training through COVID-19 restrictions this offseason, the Waxhaw native — and ACC Academic Honor Roll student — wanted to take full advantage of her opportunities in 2021.
“I knew that being sidelined last year was really hard for me,” Thompson said. “I really just wanted to be out there competing, no matter what it took. So, I worked really hard during the preseason to make sure that I was in shape enough for the season.”
And, in shape she was. Thompson, along with juniors Drew Aldridge and Emery Summey, helped the UNC vaulters score their second-highest point total of the season at the EAGL Championships.
Thompson also competed in the uneven bars, scoring a 9.750, and the balance beam, scoring a 9.900, which tied her with Culton for first place at the event.
“It’s been really amazing to watch her,” Culton said. “Obviously, coming back from her ACL tear, she’s worked so hard, and she’s one of my best friends. I knew her before I got to college, and being able to watch her grow was really cool. She deserves that beam title and everything she’s accomplished this year.”
The fifth-place finish at the EAGL championships should serve as a springboard into a strong 2022 season. With the team only losing one senior to graduation and Culton, Thompson and others all returning, the future in Carmichael Arena is more than bright.
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