‘In the right place to take that next step’: 2021–22 Illinois women’s gymnastics season provides promise for future of program


James Hoeck

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team cheers from the sides during the floor exercise routines on March 4. The Illini scored 5-3 for the the season overall.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team soared to new heights this season, gaining valuable experience and propelling themselves toward greatness next season.

The team started off rocky, committing tiny mistakes as they began to readjust to post-pandemic competition. Despite this, Illinois started off their season with a win over Central Michigan (194.150-193.425), highlighted by a substitution by senior Mallory Mizuki, where she performed her first routine on the bars, scoring a 9.825.

“The culture of the program is next person up, next person ready,” said head coach Nadalie Walsh. “The team is ready to do whatever it takes to put in the work, build the trust and be the best that we can be. Their teammates have to see what they’re going to do in the meet, in practice and that is how that trust is built.”

Illinois had Kent State, Northern Illinois and Nebraska on the schedule but would be forced to be rescheduled after health and safety concerns within the team.

Illinois followed this up by traveling to College Park, Pennsylvania to take on Penn State. There, the Illini got their first Big Ten win of the season, beating the Nittany Lions, 196.350-195.475. Sophomore Kaitlyn Ewald helped push the Illini ahead, breaking her career-high on the floor and debuting on the beam with a pair of 9.850s.

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Nebraska was rescheduled for the end of the month where Illinois was leading by the end of the third rotation. Nebraska inched closer during their final rotation, slightly edging out Illinois in team score in the beam and floor, leading Illinois to fall short by slight margins (195.500-195.450). 

What followed for Illinois would be a rough stretch of meets against Kentucky, Georgia, Minnesota, Michigan State and at the Big Five meet. The Illini couldn’t find a rhythm or consistency despite career-high scores by various gymnasts. Regardless, the competition pushed the team to keep improving as starting lineups were established and gymnasts perfected their routines.

Junior Mia Takekawa continued showing her dominance, breaking a career-high in the all-around, winning event titles.

Illinois broke their streak of poor performances with a dominant win over Rutgers at home with freshman Ruthuja Nataraj excelling in the vault and floor and junior Arayah Simons continuing her 9.90 streak on the vault. 

“She really stepped up to the plate,” said junior Lexi Powe about Simons. “In my eyes, she competes like she’s a veteran. She competes like she’s been doing this thing for five years already.”

Sophomore Abby Mueller broke a pair of career-highs on the beam and floor. Illinois won four of the five event titles, with Simons and Nataraj sharing the vault title, junior Olivia O’Donnell taking the bars title and Takekawa taking the beam and all-around titles.

Illinois went on to host a quad meet against Boise State, Central Michigan and Northern Illinois at Huff Hall. Illinois also welcomed back junior Mia Townes after a rough bout of injuries and illnesses which prevented her from competing. The former Second Team All-Big Ten honoree injected infectious energy and motivation to the team.

“(Townes) had so much confidence, she earned so much trust from her teammates, she could go out there and hit every single routine that she was put out there to do with minimal training,” coach Walsh said. “A great example of what it means to be very mentally strong — to be confident no matter what the circumstances are.”

The Illini started off the meet strong, posting their second best bars score in program history after four Illini gymnasts posted a 9.90 score. Their consistency would carry on to the rest of the event, allowing them to record their third best score in program history, signaling a turn in the season for the Illini. 

“As we went through the season we gained a lot of momentum,” Takekawa said. “Being able to show our team with confidence has been really great.”

Their momentum wouldn’t stop as Illinois hosted Bowling Green for senior day, honoring Rachel Borden, Shaylah Scott and Mizuki. At the meet, Simons tied the second best score on the vault in program history, helping Illinois set a new program record on the vault.

O’Donnell and Takekawa set new career-highs on the bars, expanding Illinois’ lead. Takekawa would also go on to score the second perfect score in her career on the beam, the only Illini in history to have two perfect tens. Mueller and sophomore Amelia Knight also would score career-highs on the floor. Illinois finished the night with a win with a score of 197.350. Takekawa continued her dominant season by setting the all-around program record at 39.75.

With one regular season meet left, Illinois traveled to Missouri for another quad meet against the hosts, Missouri, Lindenwood and Iowa State. Takekawa scored a 9.950 on the bars for the second meet in a row while Mueller set a career-high on the beam. Takekawa also scored a 9.950 on the beam.

For her efforts throughout the season, Takekawa earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, her third Big Ten honor.

The Illini headed into the Big Ten Championship with high optimism and much greater experience. Nataraj and Takekawa would go on to dominate the event with Takekawa taking home a share of the Big Ten beam title and, alongside Nataraj, be named to the All-Championship team. The rest of the team was unable to produce the same performance as they had done previously, placing them in 8th after the last event.

Despite the struggles, Illinois prepared for NCAA Regionals after they were slotted in the Seattle regional. Takekawa would be honored again, earning a Second-Team All-American award on the beam. 

The Illini would later be heartbroken as, once again, they came up just short of moving on to the regional finals, despite multiple 9.90s by Illinois gymnasts. Illinois would score a 197.375, their highest score of the season, second highest in program history.

“It stings for the whole team to miss qualifying by .075,” Walsh said. “That stings and that stings in the way that, if the ladies can take away the mindset that ‘What can I do make sure that I cover my own .075 everyday?’ then we’ll be an entirely different level better.”

Despite the way that the team’s season ended, Townes and Takekawa would earn national qualifying bids, with Townes competing on the vault while Takekawa qualifying on the bars. The junior duo rotated with Minnesota, traveling to Fort Worth, Texas to represent Illinois on national television.

“This is an amazing benchmark for me,” Townes said. “This year I didn’t think that I was going to be able to do very much just because of how many setbacks I had. I’m extremely grateful.”

Their seasons finished in Fort Worth, as Townes tied for 14th and Takekawa tied for 20th at NCAAs, helping set a new standard for the rest of the team. With seniors Mizuki and Borden deciding to exercise their extra years of eligibility, coach Walsh will retain further veteran experience to a loaded squad for the upcoming season.

“This team and the culture is in the right place to be able to take that next step,” Walsh said. “The more that people believe, the more they will change their intensity in the offseason to have their actions reflect their desires and their goals.”

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team will look to continue improving off this season, hoping to take Illinois gymnastics to new heights in the 2022–2023 season.



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