Four senior gymnasts guide No. 16 women’s gymnastics team to a big turnaround

When Illini gymnasts Marijka Botterman, Julie Crall, Kim Kruk and Lindsey Smith entered the program as freshmen in the 2005, their main goals were simple: qualify for regionals as a team and don’t finish last in the Big Ten Championships.

After joining a program that hadn’t won a Big Ten title since 1990, the four never envisioned that as seniors three years later, they would be ranked No. 16, a prime contender for the Big Ten title and have a legitimate chance of qualifying for nationals.

In 2006, the freshman year of the four seniors, the Illini placed seventh out of seven teams in the Big Ten Championships. In 2007, the Illini finished third and last year they finished second.

“We just keep getting better and better every year, so clearly this is our year to win,” Crall said. “We have a lot more confidence than before because now we know what we are capable of, and we know that we can go far.”

Head coach Bob Starkell credits the team’s year-by-year improvement to a senior group that he labels as “the turning point in the program.”

“We were able to bring in four kids … that were really good at all-around and excelled at bars and vault, and those were events that we were always behind in,” Starkell said. “The senior class is one group that really pushed us to the next level.”

Botterman has performed in the all-around her entire career and set the school vault record earlier this season. Crall’s major contribution has been on the balance beam, where she won the Big Ten title last season. Kruk was a steady all-around performer early in her career but has missed much of this season because of a foot injury she suffered last season. Smith has been a staple in the floor lineup, competing in the floor routine in nearly every meet of her career.

Starkell said that the senior class has a lot of different talents, making them the “well-rounded mix that the team needed.” In bringing new ideas and strong leadership to the Illini, the seniors pushed themselves and everyone else to improve while setting the tone for the future of the program.

“Another good thing for the team was we just kept bringing in solid recruitment classes,” Starkell said. ” Nicole (Cowart) and Sarah (Schmidt) are probably two of the most competitive people that I have ever dealt with. Allison Buckley was able to do things last year as a freshman that we have never even seen before. This year, Kelsey (Joannides) has completely surprised us as a consistent and competitive all-around performer.”

Botterman said that in past years the team relied on the coaches a lot more, asking them for advice every step of the way. Now, the athletes are more self-motivated and will “do a skill over and over again and never give up because we don’t want to let the team down.”

Crall believes that a major reason for the team’s success is camaraderie.

“Everyone just gets along really well, and we all push each other and have fun together,” Crall said. “Our team just has a special connection, from the seniors all the way down to the freshman; it’s like we can feel each other and work off each other’s successes and mistakes.”

Botterman added that their team spirit will really aid them on Saturday at the Big Ten Championships, particularly because the event is at home in Huff Hall.

The location of the championships rotates every year, so the event only comes to Illinois once every seven years.

“It is always a great opportunity for the girls to be able to compete in the Big Ten Championships at home,” Starkell said. “This year, particularly with such a close race, it will give us a definite advantage on the other teams. We can show them how far Illinois gymnastics has come since last time.”