On Jan. 7, at its first meet of the year, the UNC gymnastics team posted its best season-opening score in program history.
This impressive tri meet performance is not a coincidence, though — it comes as a result of the hard work of newcomers, returning athletes and staff.
First-year Lali Dekanoidze, ranked No. 11 in all-around nationally, wasted no time in opening her career as a Tar Heel, earning the highest all-around score at her first college meet. After competing in all four events, Dekanoidze walked away with a score of 39.325 out of 40 possible points.
However, she said she knows her craft is not yet perfect and values her training in her pursuit to become better.
“We all just competed how we trained,” Dekanoidze said. “I could improve on better landings and some floor things.”
North Carolina’s new head coach, Danna Durante, reiterated that Dekanoidze’s impressive performance was not a surprise and that the young athlete performed just like she practices.
“She's just very consistent and very steady,” Durante said. “She works very hard, constantly striving to be better, which is an overriding theme of this team.”
This season, Durante has brought her two decades of college gymnastics coaching experience to UNC, saying that North Carolina’s goal to educate and inspire through athletics hit home for her. She said she now seeks to implement this goal to develop a strong sense of trust among her team.
“Trust is important universally in relationships,” Durante said. “There’s a great sense of transparency (on the team), and they feel like it’s a partnership.”
Certainly, the stars on the tight-knit team want to do well for one another, and at the UNC Quad Meet, they did just that.
Dekanoidze was not the only Tar Heel gymnast with an admirable performance that contributed to UNC’s record-breaking score at the season opener.
Junior Elizabeth Culton helped her team during a low point of floor routines — North Carolina’s lowest-scoring rotation of the meet — scoring a team-best 9.850.
Now in her third year competing for North Carolina, Culton has emerged as a leader on the team and was recently named the first regular-season All-American for UNC gymnastics since Courtney Bumpers in 2005. Despite her time and achievements with the Tar Heels, Culton was as eager as her younger teammates to enter the arena on the day of the meet.
“I definitely felt more prepared and experienced having done it for two years, but I’m still just as excited when I walk into the arena,” she said.
Although they came in second behind Auburn, the Tar Heels had a successful performance at home. With 4,125 fans in Carmichael Arena, North Carolina surpassed its program attendance record. The team also beat its season-opener high score with a final score of 195.70.
“It’s really motivating,” Culton said of the score. “Getting that number and knowing it’s our highest season opener is motivation to keep working hard.”
Moving forward, Durante wants her team to break into the top-20 national gymnastics programs and start a legacy of postseason appearances for the Tar Heels. She is confident that the team is capable of accomplishing these goals.
As they were projected to finish third in the EAGL's preseason polls, the Tar Heels are already receiving recognition from the conference for their season opener, with Dekanoidze receiving EAGL Gymnast of the Week honors for her debut on the team.
North Carolina's performance at its record-breaking season opener provides hope for a successful season under new leadership and with new stars.
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