O’Connor ties Illinois all-around record, Weinstein returns

Junior Giana O’Connor checked her phone after leading the Illinois women’s gymnastics team to a second-place finish at the Masters Classic in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Sunday afternoon. She had a congratulatory text message from former Illini gymnast Alina Weinstein. O’Connor had just tied Weinstein’s record all-around score of 39.625.

That’s when it sunk in for her.

“It felt amazing,” said O’Connor, the No. 8 all-arounder in the NCAA. “Honestly, I never thought that I would be able to do that, and to just share that record with her right now is just unbelievable, because she was just an amazing gymnast that I looked up to so much.”

When Weinstein set the record in her senior season in 2013, O’Connor was just a freshman. The two were the consistent all-arounders on the team at the time, so Weinstein knows what O’Connor is capable of.

“Right off the bat, you knew that Giana was going to be such a powerful impact to the Illini team, and if anything, she’s just always been the same competitor,” Weinstein said. “But now I think she’s really fine-tuned really minute details, and it’s allowed her to grow so immensely, to a point where she is one of the strongest competitors in the NCAA.”

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Former All-American returns to Illinois

Illinois’ meet against Oklahoma from Friday was aired on the Big Ten Network on Monday night, and former All-American Weinstein did commentary for the competition.

“It didn’t feel too weird just because I know these girls very well, and I think it’s super easy for me to talk about them,” Weinstein said. “I think just knowing them, it was easier for me to talk about their strengths, ‘cause I know them the best.”

Weinstein competed for Illinois from 2010-2013 and ended her career with 43 titles. She was the second gymnast in program history to score a perfect 10 (first on vault) and now shares the top all-around score.

After experiencing all of that, Weinstein couldn’t help but reminisce upon entering Huff Hall for the first time since graduating.

“When I walked in here earlier, I felt a little nervous, because I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m here for a meet,’” Weinstein said on Friday. “But I’m not here to compete, so it was kind of a relief. And I’ve never been in Huff Hall in high heels, so it was definitely a change in pace.”

After leaving Illinois, Weinstein went on to Nebraska, where she was a volunteer coach for the 2013-14 season. Following that, Weinstein joined Cirque du Soleil for the six-month Corteo tour in South America, which she called the best experience of her life.

Now, Weinstein is an account executive for Yelp and lives in San Francisco, but she does gymnastics commentary on the side for the Big Ten Network. It has allowed her to stay involved in the gymnastics community and see her former team grow.

“If anything, they’re a much better team than when I was on the team,” Weinstein said. “They just keep growing. And they’re so competitive, and it’s just so beautiful to watch all of the girls that I was on the team with grow into themselves and be super competitive and super confident performers. So that’s been the most enjoyable thing for me.”

Illinois honors seniors following meet

Senior Jordan Naleway was cautious when speaking about Friday’s senior night. She had already cried earlier that day and didn’t want it to happen again.

“I’m just so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here,” Naleway said. “It’s amazing being a Fighting Illini, and I know I’m going to look back on these four years, and they’re going to be the best four years of my life.”

Naleway joined her fellow seniors Kelsi Eberly and Gaby Nguyen in being honored after Illinois’ 197.875-195.950 loss to Oklahoma at Huff Hall, and bittersweet was the theme for the event.

“You have been with them for four years and watched them just grow and mature as not only athletes, but also just as people,” head coach Kim Landrus said. “The three (seniors) — they’re just three warmhearted, great people. I know they’re going to make it far in life. They’ve brought so much to Illinois gymnastics, and so, I always remember these nights.”

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