With their eyes on the Ivy League title, the members of the Yale gymnastics team will begin their 2015 season on Sunday at the New Hampshire Invitational. Following a second-place finish at the Ivy Classic and a fifth-place finish at ECAC Championships. And with top gymnast and team captain Morgan Traina ’15 returning, the Bulldogs hope to soar to greater heights this year.
Last year’s squad was hobbled by several injuries, including season-ending ones to Kacie Traina ’17 and Mitzi Unda-Sosa ’17. While Yale finished second at the Ivy Classic, the team as a whole did not compete in the postseason, as its performance at ECACs was not sufficient to qualify for the USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championships.
“Last season was tough, with a lot of injuries,” Brittney Sooksengdao ’16 said. “We didn’t get to put up as many people on every event.”
The current team will attempt to improve on last season’s finish at ECACs — the meet that postseason qualification hinges on — despite facing a similarly rigorous schedule. All 10 meets fall on consecutive weekends. However, the Bulldogs are prepared, thanks to a combination of a new fitness regime and a more rigorous winter training schedule.
The changes actually started last season, when program alumna and former Ivy League champion Anna Mitescu ’96 began volunteering with the team. Sooksengdao said Mitescu’s advice on beam routines has improved the team’s performance in the event, and Morgan Traina credited the team’s sustained strength to Mitescu’s nutrition tips.
In one of the more drastic changes, coach Jason Vonk introduced a new fitness system in the offseason to improve the athletes’ conditioning.
“[Vonk] took [his program] from a different program that trains a lot of club gymnasts, and so it’s been a lot harder, but I think it’s a lot better for us,” Morgan Traina said. “I think we’re a lot stronger, especially cardio-wise.”
This strength allowed the Bulldogs to obtain skills and hit their routines earlier, according to Camilla Opperman ’16.
In addition to summer conditioning tests, the team challenged itself by adding four extra days of training over winter break. The gymnasts have been on campus since Dec. 29. Getting in two full weeks of practice before school reconvenes, Morgan Traina said, made a difference in the team’s level of preparedness as they went into a mock meet on Jan. 7.
The season did not get off to an ideal start when, a week after practice began in mid-October, a piece of scaffolding blew off of Payne Whitney’s facade, broke through the ceiling above the fifth-floor gym and ruined the mats the athletes used for tumbling practice.
“Long story short, we have brand-new landing mats on the fifth floor,” Morgan Traina said. “That’s also going to help keep us healthy, just because they’re nice and not lumpy. We have great equipment that’s new this year.”
The team’s current level of health is vital because it allows them to front more athletes per event. There are at least eight women on each event, as opposed to last year, when the team could only front five or six. In meets, six athletes compete on each apparatus, and the top five scores are added to the team’s cumulative score. Several members of the team, including Sooksengdao, Morgan Traina and Opperman, cited depth as the Bulldogs’ greatest strength.
Part of this depth is due to the new recruits. This year’s squad features four gymnasts from the class of 2018.
“They’re probably the most committed class of freshmen we’ve had in a long time, in and out of the gym,” Morgan Traina said. “They’re hardworking, they’re really dedicated, and … they just gelled right away.”
With the gym intact, the team has taken steps to strengthen areas that were weak in last year. Struggles and inconsistencies on beam led to a renewed focus on the event from the coaches, including Mitescu and head coach Barbara Tonry.
But the team is not neglecting one event in favor of another.
“Our bars are looking really strong this year,” Sooksengdao said. “Our vault lineup should be stronger too.”
Sooksengdao and her teammates launch into the season on Sunday in New Hampshire at 1 p.m.