The North Carolina gymnastics team opened up its season with a bang — largely due to some new faces joining the squad this year.
Standout first-year gymnasts Julia Knower and Lali Dekanoidze have already made major impacts in their first collegiate meets against tough competition.
Knower, an all-around gymnast from Mandeville, La., fell in love with UNC during her initial visit. In the Tar Heels’ first meet of the year, she scored a 9.925 on beam, beating Auburn’s all-around Olympic gold medalist, Sunisa Lee, by five hundredths of a point in the event.
Dekanoidze, originally from Matthews, said she loved the competitive atmosphere UNC offers while also being able to stay close to home.
During the team’s first meet, she earned an overall score of 39.325, the second-best score in a season-opener in UNC history. Dekanoidze’s performance earned her the honor of EAGL Gymnast of the Week in her first collegiate performance.
Both gymnasts speak highly of their opening season experiences and feel that their class brings a lot to the table.
“I think that each freshman brings something different, and we are all able to contribute in different ways,” Dekanoidze said.
Both first-years said they felt UNC was a good fit for them because of its reputable academics and competitive gymnastics program. Knower appreciates how she feels like more than just a gymnast within the community.
“They care about your aspirations after college, how you are doing in school and how you are growing as a person," Knower said. "Not a lot of college gymnastics teams put an emphasis on that.”
This year’s team is entering a new era as Danna Durante has taken over for long-time head coach Derek Galvin, who coached the team from 1981-2020.
Durante brings over 20 years of coaching experience marked by five consecutive NCAA Championship appearances from 2013-2017 during her time at the University of Georgia. She is excited for how Knower and Dekanoidze, along with the rest of this year’s first-year class, have the power to elevate the competitiveness of UNC gymnastics.
“They are certainly bringing a lot to this team from a skill-level standpoint and helping us raise the overall level of Carolina gymnastics” Durante said. “They continue to get better each week, so it’s really exciting to coach them.”
Knower said Durante has played a huge role in how the first-years have adjusted to the world of collegiate gymnastics.
“With every single girl on the team, she has that coaching relationship, but also has a personal connection with everyone,” Knower said. “It’s definitely really helped us in these last couple months going into meet season.”
The Tar Heel’s first meet of the season kicked off on Jan. 7 when the Tar Heels hosted Auburn and Bowling Green State. 4,125 students and fans poured into Carmichael Arena that Friday night before classes began, marking the most-attended gymnastics meet in program history. The Tar Heels showed up for all who showed out, posting its’ highest season-opening score the program has ever seen.
“It exceeded my expectations,” Knower said. “If that’s how home meets are, I am so excited for how the next four years are going to go.”
Durante said she loves how no member of her team approaches gymnastics the same way and how it adds to the team's dynamics. She noted how Knower and Dekanoidze’s personalities complement each other, while both offering so much to the program.
“They’re very different in their personalities, which makes them equally fun to coach,” Durante said. “They work well together, but they are very different in how they approach their competitiveness. But it works for them.”
With incredible individual and team performances in their first meets of the season and lots of untapped potential, it will be exciting to see how UNC gymnastics continues to grow and perform throughout the season. The way Knower and Dekanoidze carry themselves in practice and during meets will contribute immensely to the team’s overall success.
“It’s what makes this team unique and special,” Durante said. “Everybody says ‘Bring who you are,' — it’s going to make us better.”
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