Women’s gymnastics freshman duo sets team foundation



By Wesley Deberry

Their personalities contrast like the blue and orange color scheme of their competition leotards. Freshman Nicole Cowart’s personality is similar to that of the Energizer Bunny. Whether doing repetitions at practice or hitting the books, Cowart is constantly going at 100 miles-per-hour in everything she does.

“Her excitement when she got here pumped up the whole team and it kind of continued throughout the season,” junior teammate Michelle McGrady said.

Fellow freshman Sarah Schmidt, however, takes a more relaxed approached to situations. Schmidt is a quiet perfectionist who is constantly soaking up all the information she can.

“She doesn’t want to let everyone know she is in the gym, head coach Bob Starkell said. “She kind of stays low key and just plugs away.”

The personalities of Cowart and Schmidt define them as individuals. The orange and blue of their leotards alone are just colors. However, when looked at together, the orange and blue represent something more: “Illini Pride.” In Cowart’s and Schmidt’s case, when united, the two freshmen form the face of the future for Illini women’s gymnastics.

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They have wasted no time in making their presence felt. In every meet this season Cowart has competed in all four events for the Illini. Some of Cowart’s high points include a 9.850 vault performance against LSU in her first collegiate performance. She earned first place honors and a 39.125 all-around score in a meet between Iowa State and Northern Illinois which was good enough to win the all-around title for the Illini.

“The competition to make the line-up was pretty fierce, Cowart said. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the all-around line-up but once the season started I realized I could reach my full potential and hopefully become a leader in the gym.”

While Schmidt did not make the line-up as an all-around performer, she has still made her presence felt. Schmidt too, has been a model of dependability for the Illini, competing on uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise in 10 of the 12 meets this season. Schmidt had her coming out party in week eight of the season, against Illinois State and the University of Wisconsin La-Crosse, where she won the uneven bars competition with a score of 9.800 and the floor competition with a score of 9.800.

For the Illinois women’s gymnastics team both Schmidt’s and Cowart’s personalities and impacts have been welcomed additions to the roster.

While both Cowart and Schmidt ended up at Illinois, their road to becoming collegiate athletes began in states miles away from each other.

Cowart began gymnastics in the “Lone Star State” at 5-years-old. Since childhood, Cowart has been very energized. Her mother looked for a way for her daughter to channel her energy into something positive. The answer to her mother’s prayer was gymnastics.

Cowart’s discovery of gymnastics was a match made in heaven, as she quickly fell in love with the sport and continued through her adolescent years. After moving to Indiana, Cowart decided to give up her other passion, soccer, to focus solely on gymnastics. Her decision to give up soccer and put all her energy into gymnastics proved to be quite the investment in her future.

By the time Cowart was a senior at Central Grove High School some highlights of her impeccable gymnastics resume included: 2006 Indiana State Champion, six time national qualifier, two-time Junior Olympic team member, and two time Region Five All-Star Team member.

Her success during her adolescent years and high school brought many scholarship offers attached with high expectations for her collegiate career.

After being given a tour of the University of Illinois campus by her host, fellow teammate Kim Kruk, meeting the rest of the girls on the gymnastics team, and attending an Illinois football game Cowart was sold on attending the University of Illinois.

“I really like Illinois because of the academics and how the girls treated each other, Cowart said.

Starkell and his staff have different expectations for each of their recruits. In Cowart’s case, Starkell admits that when he recruited Cowart he expected her to stand out based on what she did in high school. Starkell was not disappointed, though, as Cowart has gone above and beyond his expectations to become only the fifth in Illini women’s gymnastics to earn first team all-conference honors in their freshman year.

While Cowart has had no problems living up to the hype in the gym, the big shock of her freshman year has been classes.

The first class she attended at Illinois was Economics 102 at 8 a.m. in Gregory Hall. To Cowart, the professors seemed very strict about their policies.

“They went through what they expected of each of us and I just realized that college was going to be a lot harder than high school was,” Cowart said.

Cowart and Schmidt both admit that the key to their academic success has been proper time management, an important issue that has been stressed to them since arriving at Illinois.

Schmidt, like Cowart, was shocked upon walking into her first college class. The number of people in Schmidt’s 11 a.m. Rhetoric 105 class in Gregory Hall frightened Schmidt. This marked a rare occasion; she walked into a classroom filled with unfamiliar faces.

“I was with the same people, who were my best friends for 13 years, then I came here and I did not know anyone, so I had to adjust,” Schmidt said.

Growing up in the Wisconsin, it was a childhood friendship that landed Schmidt in gymnastics, as her parents, Roger and Kim Schmidt decided to enroll her in gymnastics with her neighbor at the age of four.

Like Cowart, Schmidt, too, fell in love with gymnastics in her early adolescent years. As a senior at Arrowhead High School, with accolades that included being a 2005 National Qualifier and a three time National Qualifier alternate, Schmidt caught the eye of Coach Starkell.

“When we went to recruit her we saw something special about her and just thought that she was going to be an excellent NCAA athlete,” Starkell said.

After hanging out with her future teammates on her recruiting trip, Schmidt wanted to become a part of the Illini tradition. Her love for the team and kinesiology was the deciding factor for Schmidt.

“She definitely has been a major factor this year,” McGrady said. “She has been able to pull through a lot of stuff and step up when we needed her.”

Despite their impact this season, both Schmidt and Cowart still feel an emptiness in their stomachs. They hope to satisfy their hunger by achieving their common goal of winning a Big Ten Tournament and qualifying for an NCAA National Tournament.

“They’re competitors in nature but not just as gymnasts,” Starkell said. “They have got this fire in them that they want to do well in whatever they do.”