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Illini Ink - Final Entry

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Jo.jpgGet the inside scoop and peek into the lives of the Illinois Women's Gymnastics team with Illini Ink - the weekly journal that takes you behind the scenes. In this year's final edition, sophomore Jordan Naleway discusses the squad's journey to Nationals and their end of the year banquet. 

Hey Illini Fans!

I'm overcome with emotion as I try to think where to start with this last journal entry of the year!  The past few weeks have truly been incredible and I know that we all feel blessed to be part of such an amazing experience.

I think the obvious place to start would be writing about our 3rd trip ever to NCAA Nationals!  We left the dreary cold and floods and headed for blue skies and sunshine on UCLA's beautiful campus.  We didn't understand why people were wearing pants and sweatshirts in the perfect weather, but we took every chance we had to get some vitamin D...or burn lines.  Mainly burn lines.  The trip started off practice day at the newly renovated Pauley Pavilion.  With its bright lights and new design, the arena was simply stunning.  It was finally starting to sink in!  It was great to have a surprise visit from our athletic director, Mike Thomas, who coincidentally was there looking at the venue for Assembly Hall's renovation.  His friendly demeanor easily put smiles on our faces and helped get us going for the practice!

After adjusting to the equipment and getting settled, we had some time to relax before we headed off to Sony Studios for what I can call the best banquet I've ever attended!  After what had to be about 1,000 pictures, we finally made it onto the bus and were dropped off at Columbia Pictures.  We got to walk through the venue and finally arrived at Sony Studios where a red carpet, paparazzi, and a backdrop were all waiting for us!  It's safe to say that we felt like stars that night. Click here to see a photo gallery of the day.

 But I think the best surprise was when Travis, from the TV show So You Think You Can Dance? taught all of the gymnasts a dance to perform as a flash mob after the last routine at event finals.  I was happy I could finally cross flash mob off my bucket list!  And when we got back to the hotel, our awesome parents had decorated our rooms with Illini gear!

After the whirlwind of excitement, the day had finally arrived!  We were competing on the national stage!  Walking out from a cloud of smoke and loud noise set the tone for what was the best experience of my life.  We started off strong on vault and then stuck some landings, yelled some -INIs back to the parents, screamed some more for our teammates, and before we knew it, we were on our last event floor.  I know that when I was on the podium, it was the coolest feeling ever.  The lights were so bright, the crowd was loud, and I knew that no matter what, I had 13 other girls waiting for me when I was done.  I wouldn't have wanted to be there with anyone else.  The adrenaline was going and we finished out our last meet of the season with great floor performances.  To add to the excitement, Alina made event finals on floor!  All of the windsprints and 6:30am spinning classes paid off when we tied our highest finish in school history - 11th in the country!  It's obvious that we were all bleeding orange and blue!

After a fun and relaxing day soaking up the sun at Santa Monica Beach, we headed back to Pauley Pavilion the next day to see the Florida Gators take their first-ever national title!  Even though we weren't competing in Super Six (watch out for next year though!) it was such a thrilling meet to watch.  I didn't think it was possible to fit anymore gymnastics into the weekend, but the next day we were headed back to the arena for autograph sessions in the sun (we laughed at everyone who told us we were burning, we know and just don't care) and to cheer on Alina in her last collegiate routine of her career!  Alina went out with a "smang" on floor and had a great ending to her "fairytale season." 

When we sadly said goodbye to California and made it back home to Chambana, there was so much to do!  I wish missing school meant no make-up work...but let's be honest.  After our week in California, we were still riding that wave of excitement.  Luckily we were able to use it to get some work done before another busy weekend with our parents.  The parents didn't have to be nervous or scream any ILL-s this time though, because it was finally time for our annual end of the year gymnastics banquet with the guys' team. 

Everyone looked amazing in their dresses at the banquet (which of course meant 5,000 more pictures haha).  The senior's had the most heartfelt speeches.  I had my mom handing me tissues in between laughing attacks during Jac's speech.  Kim said wonderful things about each of the senior's careers here, and it made me sad to think that that'll be me in two years!  I'm already halfway done with college - it really does go by too fast!  I'd think about not taking enough credits just to stay longer, but I'm pretty sure that won't fly with Kim. 

Alina won both the Most Outstanding Gymnast Award as well as the MVP Award.  After such a record-breaking season, they were very well-deserved.  I was not surprised to see the Co-Most Consistent Beam Award go to Sunny and Giana.  I knew that each time they went up on beam they were going to hit and get huge scores, and they did just that!  Even though we all live for gymnastics, the scholar-athlete award is always extremely impressive.  Elise had the highest GPA on our team...and she's in ENGINEERING!  What a wonderful way for her to finish out her career here at Illinois!  I was honored to receive the Most Improved Gymnast Award voted on by my teammates.  Last year was tough, but I was very happy with my success this season and I was thrilled to get the award and see my teammates' support. For the banquet photo gallery, click here.

And of course, no banquet is complete without an insane highlight video.  Seriously the coolest thing I've ever seen.  Illini Productions did a fantastic job putting together a video that really reflected how successful of a season we had!  Thank you Derryl!

The burns lines are fading and reality is finally kicking in this week as we head into final exams.  Luckily I had more projects and papers and only have to take two exams this time around, but I know that not all of my teammates are as lucky.  We've really been buckling down to finish up the semester with the best grades possible.  Then, most of us get to go home for a few weeks before returning back to Champaign for summer!  I'll be sad to leave my friends and Illini Family for a while, but the time at home is much-needed.  After all this studying, I'm sure my mom won't mind if I just hibernate in my room and sleep when I get home! 

Over the past two years here at Illinois, I've made some really remarkable memories.  Attending NCAA Nationals for the third time in school history and tying our highest finish ever, though, tops it all.  I'm thankful that you all stuck with me through this ridiculously long journal entry and got to hear all about this memorable experience!

Thank you and as always, GO ILLINI!

Jo

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