Fernandez makes gymnastics history


Illinois’ Melissa Fernandez performs on the balance beam at the NCAA Championships. Fernandez scored a 9.900 and advanced to Saturday’s individual event finals. By making it to the event finals she earned First Team All-American honors, becoming the first Illini in school history to do so.

By Emily Bayci

Sophomore Illini gymnast Melissa Fernandez entered uncharted territory Saturday night. As the first woman in the history of the gymnastics program to compete in the NCAA Championships individual event finals, she didn’t know what to expect.

“I was pretty nervous, but the warmup was really relaxed because it was an open warmup, and that helped me ease my nerves,” Fernandez said. “It was just amazing to be there competing against everyone.

“The most important thing to remember about competing at nationals is to act like it’s just a normal meet: to be confident and to have fun.”

After tying for first in the preliminaries on Thursday with a score of 9.900, Fernandez performed a nearly perfect routine to tie for seventh in the nation on the balance beam with a score of 9.8375. By qualifying for the finals, Fernandez earned first team All-American honors, being the first Illini gymnast to do so. This season, she hit what her coaches call a perfect 14-for-14 on the balance beam — no restarts, no falls and no missed landings.

“This is just an absolutely wonderful accolade for Melissa,” associate head coach Kim Landrus said. “She has worked so hard and has been doing everything she’s supposed to all season. She is always the most focused athlete and I am very proud of her because she deserves this.”

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The Illini finished in sixth place in their session during the team competition on Thursday, failing to advance to the final round. They will end the season ranked 12th in the nation, their highest ranking to end a season in school history. Junior Sarah Schmidt took sixth on the floor, earning second team All-American honors.

Head coach Bob Starkell is happy to have the team qualify for nationals, but also to win awards, proving that this is the best Illinois women’s gymnastics team in program history.

Not only did the team win awards, but the coaching staff took home some hardware as well. All the coaches at nationals voted, and Starkell was named National Coach of the Year. Assistants Landrus and Amy Kruse were named Co-National Assistant Coaches of the Year.

“This season was a great experience for all parties involved,” Starkell said. “Now we just hope that these women aren’t going to be a one-hit wonder, and we will return to nationals.”