Women’s gymnastics ‘think pink’ to raise breast cancer awareness



By Laura Hettiger

The No. 25 Fighting Illini women’s gymnastics team has been “thinking pink” during practice this week while preparing for their upcoming meet against Denver on Saturday night.

In a special meet designed to raise awareness about breast cancer, the women will be trading in their typical orange and blue leotards for more suitable pink uniforms.

“I think we’re excited to be back at home,” said head coach Bob Starkell. “To have the meet represent awareness for breast cancer, I think that in itself is really big for our program. That we can try to do something good other than worrying about a loss or win at home, we are looking at the big picture of things.”

Even though other university teams have hosted events with proceeds going to breast cancer research, this meet hits really close to home for sophomore all-around competitor Nicole Cowart.

“I was adopted, but my adopted dad died actually from liver cancer,” said the Greenwood, Ind., native. “My mom had a tumor, but it was benign. It is really exciting it goes toward such a good cause; it’s a really good thing.”

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    Although the 1-2 Illini are excited about the unique competition, they have not lost sight of beating Denver.

    “It was nice to finally come off of a win,” said Cowart about the team’s recent victory over Iowa. “But we really need to hit all of our events. We haven’t hit a full meet yet.”

    Cowart, a First Team All-Big Ten competitor in 2007, is excited to go head-to-head against Denver. In last year’s meeting with the No. 13 Pioneers, disaster struck when junior Lindsey Smith suddenly became ill and junior Julie Crall tore her Achilles tendon in the days prior to the competition.

    “This year I think it will be a really good competition as long as we hit all four of our events,” said Cowart, stressing her team’s problem with consistency. “I think we’ll have a really good chance of showing everyone what we can do.”

    With such a young group of gymnasts, confidence has been lacking throughout the early part of the season. Starkell has altered his team’s practice time by having the women do more repetitions on each apparatus.

    Starkell’s current goal is to make each individual as comfortable as possible during actual competition.

    The nine-year veteran coach is also trying to reduce his younger athletes’ stress levels through lineup changes and doing more mental coaching to avoid mistakes.

    “I’m trying to get them to focus on small stuff, rather than working on the big thing, then they think about falling,” he said. “And if they think about falling, probably their percentage of falling is greater.”

    From thinking pink, to focusing on consistency, to boosting their confidence, the Illini are ready to take on Denver at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Huff Hall.