New gymnasts a welcome addition



By Laura Hettiger

Gymnastics requires finesse, agility, flexibility, patience and poise. The same skills are always taught, but special athletes have a tendency to develop their own personality through their routines. With this year’s Fighting Illini women’s gymnastics recruiting class, “personality” is at an all-time high.

“Out of the four (athletes), they are all different,” said Head Coach Bob Starkell of the newest additions to his roster. “They all have orange and blue in their blood.”

For Allison Buckley, Melissa Fernandez, Lashlee Morris and Samantha Perino, Starkell’s excitement is already apparent even though competition season is still months away.

“The first meet is in January,” said Starkell, who is entering his ninth season as head coach. “Right now, I’m getting them sore.”

Starkell has only interacted with the freshmen a few weeks, primarily through conditioning, but he is already seeing just how unique each of the athletes is.

Buckley, an outspoken, strong and quick “power athlete,” hails from Schaumburg, Ill. Fernandez, a Kansas native, is serious in the gym, but very outgoing and always smiling. Morris’ “sweet disposition” has given her a graceful style to help ease her transition from Florida. Perino, the tallest of the group at 5-foot-3, is from Virginia and “goes about her work at a high level.”

As the season develops, Starkell will get to know the girls more, but he can already see how they interact among each other.

“They already seem like a close-knit group,” Starkell said.

Starkell’s main goal for the Class of 2011: to keep them “healthy and happy.”

In a sport where injuries are common, Starkell will have his hands full. The thoughts of injuries, however, are the furthest thing from the athletes’ minds. With a top-20 team finish at last year’s national meet, the newcomers have high expectations for themselves.

“Gymnastics-wise, I want to make it to Nationals as a team,” said Buckley, the “go-to girl” for advice on life in Illinois.

Fernandez agreed, but ultimately hopes the Illini can be ranked in the top 10 by their senior season.

Gymnastics aside, a unique thread to the group is the emphasis put on academics. They all agree gymnastics will not last forever, so along with succeeding in the gym, they want to succeed in each of their respective majors and figure out what life has waiting when they decide to hang up their leotards.

Before Buckley, Fernandez, Morris and Perino call it quits, however, they are going to enjoy the college life. In a collective agreement, all of them state “freedom and independence” as their favorite part of college.

“I love not having class all day,” Buckley said, “Definitely just the freedom to walk around and do whatever you want.”

Fernandez has enjoyed “meeting new people” while Morris and Perino have liked being in control of their own schedules.

Even though the foursome is now crossing over into the world of the “student-athlete,” the Six Pack residents still have not lost sight of the important things in life at Illinois.

“‘Late Night’ is a frequent place for us to visit,” said Buckley with a laugh. All of them agree the residence hall food is good, and between their full class loads, numerous workouts, hours spent studying at Irwin Academic Center and navigating across the vast campus, nourishment is needed.

From their team workouts to their shopping trips together, the group has been leaning on each other for both moral support and a way to fight homesickness.

“Being from Florida, I haven’t really been homesick at all – not at all,” said Morris. “Because of the team and how close they are, I really don’t feel like I left.”

Each girl comes from a different state, brings her own unique style to the team, and these four are definitely in it for the long haul.

“We want to get enough education to go somewhere after college, cause gymnastics is not going to get us through the rest of our lives,” Buckley said.

Maybe gymnastics won’t always be there, but the friendships and bonds the women’s gymnastics recruiting class is making now, probably will be.