The Daily Illini

New women’s gymnastics assistant leads to quick success

The Illinois women’s gymnastics team has only competed in five meets this season, but that’s been enough to prove the Illini’s worth as an uneven bars team.

Bars is the only event the Illini have scored a 49 or higher on every meet so far this season. They even tied the fourth-best bars score in program history in Saturday’s win over Minnesota at Huff Hall with a 49.375. This recent success is largely attributed to assistant coach Jacob Lee.

Lee, Illinois’ bars coach, was hired in July after former associate head coach Jay Santos left the program to become the head coach at Eastern Michigan.

Previously, Lee spent two years as an assistant coach for Iowa’s women’s gymnastics program. He left because of the Illinois women’s gymnastics program’s potential, the chance to be part of a team that can contend for both Big Ten and NCAA Championships and the opportunity to work with head coach Kim Landrus.

“After my interview, I just thought that everything really aligned,” Landrus said of her interview with Lee. “His coaching philosophies were such that I thought he would be a very good fit for our program.”

Lee is looking more and more like the right choice every meet with the bars scores Illinois has posted, but along the way, he has helped individual gymnasts succeed.

In Illinois’ home opener against Central Michigan on Jan. 11, sophomore Sarah Lyons won the bars title with a 9.850 in her debut, making it her first collegiate title.

The next weekend, Illinois swept the bars podium in its home opener against Rutgers. Senior Sunny Kato tied her career high on the event with a 9.925 to take first place. Sophomore Mary Jane Horth placed second with a 9.900, while Lyons scored another 9.850.

Horth also won the bars titles in Illinois’ last two meets against Penn State and Minnesota. She set a career high each time, with her latest high being a 9.975.

Before they’re able to succeed competitively, the gymnasts must go through different levels in training with Lee.

“The first level would be difficulty, to make sure they all started at 10.0,” Lee said. “Once they have the difficulty, then it just depends on our meet schedule. So then I got to get them endurance-wise prepared for our meets, but then I also can’t burn them out. ”

Whatever balance Lee has set appears to be for the best. He’s aware of the success Illinois has experienced on bars so far and feels he’s done a good job. The Illini are No. 8 in the GymInfo rankings for uneven bars.

Interestingly enough, Lee didn’t intend on taking on a coaching career in gymnastics. He competed in the collegiate level for Minnesota, but coaching was just a backup plan when he graduated with an Applied Economics degree in 2007. Lee went on to work for Wells Fargo for about eight months, but realized he “hated sitting in front of a cubical for 40 hours a week.”

It was then that Lee started coaching. He began at TAGS Gymnastics in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, before heading to Iowa.

Now, at Illinois, Lee is doing more than just making the gymnasts better technically. He has also pushed the Illini raise their expectations.

“We are now a complete bar team, which I think is wonderful to be a part of,” Lyons said of what Lee has done for the team. “He knows what we’re capable of, and he won’t settle for anything less.”

Ashley can be reached at [email protected] and @wijangco12.

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