COVID, Snow, Injurie threw Jordyn Wieber’s Arkansas gymnastics team off balance for a full month


Arkansas gymnastics coach Jordyn Wieber has a problem, and there’s not much she can do about it.

For a month now, the goal must have been to compete, and she’s determined to make that happen one way or another.

Covid caused the cancellation of a highly anticipated meeting against LSU after Auburn’s match-up summit in front of a record crowd at Bud Walton Arena.

The following week, Arkansas barely fielded enough competitors at No. 2 Florida as COVID drained bodies, ate up practice time and made rebuilding to a point where it was nearly impossible for women to compete safely.

Then came the ice and snow. West Virginia had to cancel at the last minute due to travel safety concerns, so a determined Wieber scrambled those around her to find a team that might be willing to create a short week for themselves and drop their heavily guarded routines so the Gymbacks won’t. having to lose a second weekend.

That led Southeast Missouri State to come to Barnhill Arena last Sunday for an impromptu meeting that saw Arkansas shake off some of the mental rust created by the start and end of the personal routines over the past few weeks.

Adding a long list of injuries and protracted recoveries meant athletes faced a near impossibility to build momentum and rhythm

It looked like everything was finally going to work out this week ahead of a meeting against No. 10 Kentucky,

But as the week progressed, it became clear that adjustments would be needed. Wieber determined that rookie Leah Smith, who usually competes in the all-around, needed a break to get through all four events with the loss of recovery time between encounters to reduce the risk of preventable injury.

The nagging Achilles pain for Sarah Shaffer meant she wouldn’t be on the floor unless a dire situation arose, which wouldn’t be a big adjustment since Wieber had put together a line-up without Shaffer at the ground since meeting Auburn a month ago.

But, on Friday, when there were no more practices left to evaluate his team, we learned that the All-American Kennedy Hambrick would enter quarantine. That didn’t mean the Gymbacks wouldn’t have anyone competing in the all-around, giving Kentucky’s Raena Worley the win by default, but that a decision on how to replace one of the nation’s top gymnasts at the last second possible under the watchful eye of Wieber warming up to see who would be best placed to go.

The meeting was supposed to aim to get off to a quality start in the first two events against Kentucky.

Trips and falls on vault and especially on bars had slowed Arkansas’ starts at several competitions this year, digging Arkansas into a deep hole ahead of its strongest events — beam and floor.

The Gymbacks didn’t need to be in the lead after the first two events, but they did at least need it to give themselves a chance to crush the Wildcats in front of a packed Barnhill Arena.

However, after two events, it was clear that the move to being able to compete for a fourth consecutive week had taken its toll again.

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There were still highlights. Shaffer put his injuries aside and landed a great run on the vault.

Freshman Leah Smith, who won her first all-around last Sunday against Southeast Missouri State, followed a fall from Emma Kelley to hold the landing after a close performance on the bars for a 9.825, giving Arkansas momentum on its weakest event.

Fellow freshman Maddie Jones used that momentum to cut Kentucky’s lead with a 9.85 performance.

Shaffer then took a fall, ensuring the Gymbacks should keep at least a low score, but Maggie O’Hara stepped up and immediately collected it.

All-American on bars last year, O’Hara has struggled in the past two competitions. However, the precision, technique and determination shown the last time O’Hara had to get back on the bars after a crash on Sunday made it clear that any mental blocks limiting her performance had been erased.

With the block gone before this encounter, O’Hara returned to old form. She flew powerfully as she moved back and forth between the bars and landed with a mighty flourish, thrilled to finally score at her personal best with a 9.925.

Considering Arkansas was without Hambrick, who regularly finds himself in all-around contention and is always a threat to land a perfect score bar, trailing .675 midway through wasn’t the worst case scenario.

With Kentucky struggling on floor exercise, the door was open for Arkansas to make up considerable ground on balance beam. The Gymbacks are No. 9 in the nation in the event and have broken school records left and right this season.

However, it wasn’t meant to be. Leah Smith and Amanda Elswick, who have been nearly faultless all season, struggled in an unusual way to stay on the beam, meaning Arkansas should count their second fall of the night.

The Gymbacks posted a 48.50, a sharp drop from the 49.475 posted by the team in Florida two weeks ago.

That left Arkansas needing to make up 1.25 in the final round, but the silver lining was that Kentucky needed to finish strong on beam, its weakest event, to lock in the win, while the Gymbacks looked to close out strong on the floor a few feet from a raucous student section full.


Jones and senior Bailey Lovett used the energy to clinch 9.9 seconds for the second individual wins of the night, and Savannah Pennese added a 9.875 for a clean Top 3 sweep of the event, but that wouldn’t be enough. as the Gymbacks posted their lowest team score since opening the season against Ohio State.

Maddie Jones vs. Kentucky

Both teams finished below their season average, meaning they are each at risk of falling in the standings.

Normalcy will continue not to be a thing for at least the next two weeks. Arkansas travels to Missouri on a Sunday instead of the usual Friday to face two sets of Tigers as LSU also sneaks into the competition.

That will mean adjusting to another short week when Georgia arrives in Barnhill the following Friday to cap off a tumultuous February.


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