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Kato emerges as an inspiration, leader

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Illinois’ Sunny Kato performs a routine on the balance beam during the meet against Minnesota at Huff Hall on Feb. 7. 

Illinois’ Sunny Kato performs a routine on the balance beam during the meet against Minnesota at Huff Hall on Feb. 7. 

Illinois’ Sunny Kato performs a routine on the balance beam during the meet against Minnesota at Huff Hall on Feb. 7. 

Ashley Wijangco

A blue and orange poster stood out in the Huff Hall crowd on Jan. 31. The Illinois men’s and women’s gymnastics teams were both competing, but this sign was especially made for one gymnast: senior Sunny Kato.

Inside the orange border of the poster were orange-filled “U of I” bubble letters sandwiched by the blue words “Go Sunny” with a yellow sun encompassing the “S” in Kato’s name. The poster was completed with two orange and blue outlined starburst shapes at the top, with “beam” and “bar” written inside each one.

Kato met the creator of this sign, a young gymnast named Nevaeh, for a second time once the women’s meet concluded. The two took a photo with Nevaeh holding up the sign. Kato proceeded to post the photo on Instagram with the caption, “Another reason I love what I do … Never thought I would be able to inspire and be a little girl’s idol.”

“It’s just nice to know we’re role models for little girls,” Kato said. “You forget sometimes that it’s not just about yourself or the team.”

That moment recalled memories of when Kato was a young girl herself, idolizing the UCLA gymnasts she grew up watching: Onnie Willis, Yvonne Tousek and Jamie Dantzscher just to name a few.

There wasn’t one particular gymnast who Kato admired the most, but she does want to do what they all did for her. 

“I want to inspire those girls how the other girls have inspired me, and I want that cycle to keep going,” Kato said. “I want the girls to love gymnastics and love the team, have some Illini pride, or any pride that they have for any school.”

Head coach Kim Landrus has seen the impact Kato has made on her team — particularly the younger gymnasts. Kato’s drive makes her a good role model and sets higher expectations for her teammates.

“When you have somebody with that drive and that desire to excel, you know it’s going to impact the team in a very positive way,” Landrus said. “I think that it has.”

But Kato is more than just a role model to her teammates. She’s also a great friend.

“I know that I can go to her for anything in the world, no matter if it’s gymnastics-related, family-related or literally anything,” freshman Jordyn Givens said. “She’s always there. So Sunny is a huge part of my life. I love her to death.”

The thing is, if Kato approached her high school years differently, Givens and the rest of the Illini likely wouldn’t have Kato to rely on or look up to.

During her sophomore year at Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, California, Kato quit gymnastics for four or five months, claiming she hated the sport. She partially did it because she “just wanted to have fun.”

Gymnastics took up a lot of Kato’s time, and it didn’t leave much time left to socialize. After being home schooled from fifth to eighth grade, Kato just wanted to hang out with the friends she made in public high school.

Kato spent her time away from gymnastics just sitting on the couch watching TV, and her parents insisted she return to the sport and get back in shape.

“I was kind of forced back in,” Kato said. “But at the same time, I realized that if I wanted to go to college (for gymnastics), if I wanted to pursue my goals, I needed to come back.”

Kato’s time away from the sport made her cherish it and realize gymnastics was a part of her.

Soon after returning, she received interest from colleges and it surprised her. But it also led to the realization that she could compete in the NCAA.

Kato committed to California-Berkeley as a junior; however, the school was facing budget cuts and the women’s gymnastics team was in danger. That was when she was allowed to speak to other schools.

Nebraska was in consideration, but in the end, something was missing. 

“I just didn’t feel a connection,” Kato said.

Illinois was completely different, though. When she visited campus, she knew it was the place for her.

Kato tore her anterior cruciate ligament as a freshman, causing her to miss the season.

“That was one of the hardest things for me, to watch my team compete and do what I love,” Kato said. “But I think that also taught me that everything happens for a reason.”

Kato doesn’t wish her first year at Illinois would have turned out differently, though, because now she has another year on campus, another year to do what she loves and to be with her teammates.

“I always joke about not coming back, but I’m absolutely going to be back,” Kato said. “I wouldn’t leave these girls.”

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@wijangco12

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