LSU GYM defeats Missouri

LSU gymnastics freshman all-around Haleigh Bryant cheers after her vault where she scored a perfect 10.00 Friday, March 3, 2021 during LSU's 197.875-196.175 win over Missouri in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on N. Stadium Drive in Baton Rouge, La.

Haleigh Bryant is in a class of her own. Her 2021 campaign has been remarkable, but that’s nothing new for her. A freshman from Cornelius, North Carolina, Bryant’s resume before coming to LSU is equally impressive.

From the early age of three, Bryant has always loved being in the gym. She trained at Georgia AllStar Gymnastics until 2011 when her family moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to North Carolina. Bryant then began to train at Everest Gymnastics, a U.S. National Team training center.

Bryant won four Junior Olympic National Championships as a Level 10 gymnast at Everest. She was named to the Junior Olympic National team three consecutive years from 2017-2019 after taking home gold medals in the all-around, vault (twice) and bars.

In 2020, Bryant was the Nastia Liukin Cup all-around, vault and bars champion and recorded the first perfect vault score in the history of the event. She decided she wanted to come to LSU as an eighth grader in 2015 after Head Coach Jay Clark visited her gym and told her she’d look good in purple.

“That stuck with me ever since,” Bryant said. “Jay was one of the first college coaches that came to my gym when I was a Level 10. I think ever since he came, I told myself that this is where I want to go. I came for a visit and fell in love with this program. I loved the academics, all the coaches and the team camaraderie. I knew I wanted to spend four years of my life here.”

After last year’s postseason was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was uncertainty for Bryant heading into her freshman season. She said that while protocols have limited what the team can and can’t do, she has still thoroughly enjoyed her time at LSU.

“We can’t really hang out with people outside of gymnastics,” Bryant said. “I think it’s made our team a lot closer. It benefited us because we’re closer than maybe we would’ve been. I think I’ve adjusted pretty well. I came to college not really being with a team and kind of competing by myself in the Junior Olympics, but I love it here. I love competing with the team. Everybody here is so supportive, and I love it.”

Bryant kicked off her freshman season with an all-around title in her first collegiate meet against Arkansas on Jan. 15. She earned a 9.975 on floor, the highest by an LSU freshman in their debut meet in program history. Bryant’s 39.600 all-around score earned her the SEC Gymnast of the Week title.

Bryant earned the first perfect score of her career on vault against Missouri on March 5 and shared the all-around title with sophomore Kiya Johnson. Both finished with overall scores of 39.625 and recorded the only perfect scores of the meet.

Bryant won 11 total titles as a freshman — five vault, four all-around and two floor. She attributes her success to her confidence and sees it as something she’s been able to build on over the course of the season.

“What I’ve been doing this year has helped a lot,” Bryant said. “It’s believing in myself a little bit more and knowing that everybody here is doing things for me and is supportive. I’m looking forward to the next three years here and being with this team and the coaches because it’s just amazing.”

LSU finished second at the SEC Gymnastics Championships in Huntsville, Alabama after recording a 197.775 team score. The Tigers fell just .100 points shy of their fourth straight SEC title despite putting up the third-highest SEC Championship score in program history.

Bryant and fellow freshman Elena Arenas led LSU’s vault lineup, each securing titles in the event by scoring 9.95s. Bryant earned a 9.80 on bars, a 9.775 on beam and a 9.925 on floor to finish with an all-around score of 39.450.

Vault is an event that Bryant said has always come naturally to her. She’s worked with assistant coach Bob Moore ever since she stepped on campus to perfect her landings and avoid any deductions.

Bryant’s performances during the regular season earned her three All-America honors from the Women’s College Gymnastics Association. She received first-team All-America honors for vault and floor and second-team honors for the all-around.

Bryant was named the 2021 SEC Freshman of the Year after ranking No. 3 nationally in vault, No. 4 in floor and No. 9 in the all-around. She became the third gymnast in program history to win the award (April Burkholder, Kiya Johnson). Bryant is the only freshman in the conference and one of two freshmen in the nation to record a perfect score this season.

“She’s had an incredible season,” Clark said. “It became relatively obvious that that was going to be the case. To have her win it consecutively with Kiya winning it last year, I think that just speaks volumes about what the future of this program looks like.”

LSU has staked a claim to the award in back-to-back seasons. Johnson, who Bryant said is one of her role models, won the award last season as a freshman.

“It’s an honor,” Bryant said. “It was definitely a goal that I set before I even started competing here. I think working hard every day and knowing I wanted to achieve one of those goals and now achieving it is just an honor following in Kiya’s footsteps. I just want to be like Kiya and I try to follow her. She’s just a great leader.”

LSU’s six seniors — Reagan Campbell, Bridget Dean, Christina Desiderio, Sami Durante, Sarah Edwards and Olivia Gunter — have also helped Bryant through the season. The veteran leadership they bring is something Bryant said is invaluable to the program.

The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for all collegiate athletes, including seniors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic should they elect to return. Bryant said that while she hopes the seniors return next season, she wishes them the best of luck in their future endeavors.

“They’re just amazing leaders inside and outside the gym,” Bryant said. “They’re always there for us and we can go to them if we need them for anything. Even if it doesn’t have to do with gymnastics they’re still there for us. I love each and every one of them, and I’m so proud of them and how far they’ve come from their freshman year.”

Bryant said she feels that the sky’s the limit for this team, which qualified for the NCAA Gymnastics Championships after its performance in the Salt Lake City Regional on April 2-3.

“I think we’re really confident because we know how much we can do and how much we can improve on the little details,” Bryant said. “We still had a great score even though we didn’t win at the SEC Championships. We didn’t want to come out of that being disappointed or being defeated because we have so much more we can do and we’re really excited. We’re going to keep working hard and hopefully all of our hard work pays off in the end.”

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