Defining her Reyn

By Matt Stacionis

During each of the past two seasons, both Reyna Gilbert and the NIU gymnastics team have left the Mid-American Conference Championships in disappointment.

After helping her team to a third-place finish during her freshman season, Gilbert and her teammates suffered falls and injuries each of the next two seasons leading to seventh-place showings at the conference meet.

Gilbert, an NIU psychology major, was part of a six-gymnast recruiting class that came in with high expectation for the 1998 season. The group made up nearly half the team and stayed the same for the first two seasons.

Of the group, Gilbert was often classified as the best individual. The Maitland, Fla., native competed in the all-around in 12 of 13 competitions that season. Starting her success early, Gilbert has overcome the rough spots of her sophomore and junior seasons to finish out her last year strong.

Three times this season, Gilbert hit higher then a 39 in the all-around. That feat was only accomplished by Sandy Menard and Margaret Morz prior to Gilbert’s 39.250 and teammate Anna Gardina’s 39.175 this season. Gilbert is only .150 off of Menard’s 39.400 for the top school mark.

“I’m happy with our performances,” she said. “We have just realized the potential that we have. We deserve to get in the 190s. We’re focused on what we need to do.”

The success Gilbert has experienced almost was cut extremely short. A pair of torn MCLs in the off-season threatened to cut her senior year and nearly forced her to give up a sport she has known almost her entire life. So Gilbert, no stranger to injury after a shaky sophomore season broken foot and finger, sat and waited for the verdict of her competition ability for the upcoming season. Even if she did get a doctor’s consent to compete, her ability could have been hampered because of the knee injury.

“It has been in the back of my mind,” Gilbert said of her injuries. “There’s no pain or nothing to show that it is going to come back.”

Although the injuries might not be permanent, her gymnastics did suffer at the beginning of this season. She started out the year’s first meet with a 36.575 in the all-around, her lowest mark in the past three seasons. Through that experience, Gilbert was forced to overcome the lowest point of her four-year career.

She earned a 9.700 on the bars against Georgia, who was ranked No. 1 in the country, and had an all-around score of 38 or higher six times her freshman year. Gilbert, who’s dad played college basketball, realized that she and her team had the potential to leave their mark at NIU.

As a freshmen, she was still making the transitions needed to become a college gymnast. With the injuries and a coaching change after her sophomore season, Gilbert was going to have to wait three seasons to reach her full potential.

“Freshman year we really did a good job, [but] this has been the best and most consistent we have been,” she said.

Gilbert wasn’t the only one to make the transition that season. With her six teammates, the 5-foot-4-inch gymnast learned the hard life of a college athlete and the things she could express to the teammates she would be leading for the next two seasons.

Gilbert’s real test came during her junior year season when, not only did NIU have a new coach in Mark Sontag — who was only the second coach in NIU’s history — but it also had nine new faces to add to the team.

“Coming in as a freshman, I knew it was going to be different,” she said. “It’s hard to adjust to college-level gymnastics, [but] I made the transition very well. I was lucky to have good coaches and good teammates to support me, good older girls to look up to. Then, sophomore year, I was kind of injured, came back and made it through with my injuries and we had new freshmen. [Current head coach Mark Sontag] was good to work through that year.”

And her senior year proved to become her breakthrough season. Aside from hitting the 39s, Gilbert also has helped her team to its second highest team total in school history with a 194.675 against Southeast Missouri State on March 11. In that meet, Gilbert hit a 9.900 on both the floor and balance beam but finished second to Gardina in the all-around.

“All the years of gym have finally paid off,” Gilbert said. “I’m more relaxed because I’ve been doing this for so long. When I get high scores, I think I can perform even better.”

If Gilbert scores high in the all-around at her last competition, she will have the possibility of traveling to the NCAA regional competition as an individual competitor for the second straight season. Gilbert’s trip last season marked the first time, since Menard went to both nationals and regionals in 1998, that a Huskie qualified for a post-season meet.

If she hits a 39 or above at regionals, she may be the second Huskie to qualify for Nationals.

“I’m just trying to focus on one meet at a time,” Gilbert said. “It will help out my regional chance then have my best meet at MAC. That is in the back of my mind. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, just do what I’ve been doing.”

But with last-place team showings each of the last two seasons, Gilbert’s goal is to also help guide her team out of the MAC basement. With her three 39s already this season, she might have the capability of doing just that at Saturday’s conference meet. But even with their recent success, Gilbert isn’t trying to force her team into something they aren’t ready for. She said that the team is realistic about its goals.

“There’s a lot of great girls in the MAC, but as long as I keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll be fine,” she said. “[But we’re going to] be realistic. Trying to get first is not realistic. My goal is not to finish last.”

But just as reality sinks in, the thought of being forced to spend a year at the bottom of the MAC isn’t something she wants to relive. This time, a seventh-place finish would be unredeemable by Gilbert and the team’s other two seniors.

“It’s been in our minds,” she said. “It’s not something that we focus on — we just try to focus on being positive, and we can only go up from here. It was hard considering my freshmen year we came in third. We didn’t have successful years my sophomore and junior years.”

Aside from helping her team, Gilbert’s regional chances are also riding on Saturday’s meet.

“I’m just trying to focus on one meet at a time,” she said. “It will help out my regional chance then have my best meet at MAC.”