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A special crop of freshmen gymnasts has bolstered a talented University of Wisconsin Oshkosh team this season as it prepares to compete for a national Div. III title.

For the first time ever, UW Oshkosh is hosting the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (NCGA) championship. It takes place at 4 p.m. March 23 at Kolf Sports Center.

The Titans secured a berth in the national meet with a second place finish in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) West Regional March 9 in Menomonie, Wisconsin. It will be their first appearance since 2014. They won national titles in 1989 and 2007.

Coach Lauren Karnitz said she is extremely proud of what the team has accomplished this season.

“We continually reminded ourselves to take our competition season one step at a time, one practice day at a time, one meet at a time, one event at a time, one skill at a time—which at points was difficult to not get excited or ahead of ourselves,” she said. “We focused on the here and now and practiced patience. This allowed us to overcome injuries and stay calm in the face of adversity until the day when everything aligned at Seattle Pacific (competition Feb. 15 in Seattle, Washington) and we have been on an upward path since then.”

This year’s gymnastics team was strengthened with the addition of some strong competitors, including a number of top-performing first year students. There are eight freshmen who were added to the team this year, and they rounded out a strong group of veteran gymnasts.

Emily Gilot, a freshman kinesiology student from St. Louis, Missouri, said she believes the team’s hard work is paying off.

“Going into Nationals, I believe that if we do what we have been doing all season, we could come out with a trophy,” she said.

Gilot, who will compete in vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, said she chose UW Oshkosh because of the campus and the opportunity to continue her gymnastics career.

“Coach Karnitz and the team were so welcoming when I came on my official visit and the atmosphere of the team was something I knew I wanted to be a part of.”

Kaira Hammond said she is excited to have family coming to watch—the first meet they are able to attend. Hammond, a freshman kinesiology student, hails from Aurora, Colorado.

“It is super exciting that we are hosting Nationals because it’ll be another home meet, which are always full of energy and excitement,” Hammond said. “It’s the greatest feeling having a crowd of families and friends there to support the whole team.”

Hammond said UW Oshkosh was the right choice for her because teammates and coaches felt like family.

“I knew that being so far from home, I was going to need a lot of support,” she said. “And I found that here.”

Another first year student, Rahdea Jarvis, a Brookfield native majoring in business management, said all season, team members were even more determined as they thought about hosting Nationals.

“Our team motto was #roadtohome,” she said. “Since I am so close (from the Milwaukee area) most of my family will be coming. Hopefully, some of my old teammates and friends from high school will be coming to support as well.”

Overcoming injury

Jessica Bernardo is a junior from Milford, Michigan, majoring in biology at UW Oshkosh.

Bernardo said she has had a “comeback season” from injury and expects to compete in the all-around competition at Nationals.

“Our talent level is definitely higher this year with the addition of some strong competitors, but I think the greatest difference in our team is how close we are as teammates,” she said, adding that they are all supporting each other and having fun.

A veteran member of the team, Baylee Tkaczuk, missed much of her season due to a concussion. Tkaczuk is back and ready to compete. She said this season is the team’s best in her three years at UW Oshkosh—they have been breaking school records and having fun.

“We are fully capable of coming out on top if we do what we have been this season,” she said.

She said it’s very special that Nationals will be hosted at UW Oshkosh during her time on campus.

“Not many gymnasts can say they performed in their national competition at their home gym. To be there with my whole team is a dream come true.”

Tkaczuk, a junior psychology major and pre-med student from Channahon, Illinois, said she believes many girls on the team could earn All-American awards—maybe the most ever in a season at UWO.

Tkaczuk is a defending two-time national champion on the uneven bars. In addition, she earned All-American status on the balance beam at last year’s NCGA Championship.

Getting set

The NCGA has a contract that provides a set of equipment for the national championship, with the host school paying for shipping and set-up. Members of the UW Oshkosh Wrestling Team will be supplying their muscle, placing equipment inside Kolf. Karnitz said it usually takes about 20 people two hours to set up a gym.

With that work completed Thursday, the UW Oshkosh team should have a chance to practice on the equipment before the other teams arrive Friday.

Judges will be coming from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan. There are two judges per event and an average of their scores is the final score for each athlete, Karnitz explained.

The longtime coach and alumna is enlisting the help of gymnastics alumni who were a part of the 2007 National Championship team to help manage the weekend with her and Vicci Stimac, associate director of athletics.

“As an alumna, I can say we are very excited to showcase our university while also being able to showcase our team’s accomplishments,” she said. “A team bid to nationals was not guaranteed for us, so to be able to qualify to the first NCGA championship we have ever hosted and have a chance at bringing home a trophy in front of our fans at home is extra special for me. A lot of my old teammates will be in attendance along with our family, friends and fans. We truly believe in leaving a legacy and our motto is always tradition-driven. We want to continue to make history at UW Oshkosh and leave it better than when we found it.”

Karnitz said the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference is consistently strong.

“I would not be surprised if you see multiple WIAC teams in the Top 3 at Nationals,” she predicted.

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