On Nov. 27, 1965, the UCLA men’s basketball team lost only its third game in more than two years. John Wooden’s team was the reigning back-to-back national champion, but that night, the members of the Bruins’ varsity team were swept off the court by an 18-year-old Lew Alcindor and the rest of their own freshmen squad.
Today, a dominant freshman class in basketball is far from surprising. In gymnastics, on the other hand, the presence of freshmen in the events lineup is unusual. But Yale gymnastics’ six-person rookie class has emerged as the prominent force on the team.
“The freshman are currently 50 percent of our lineup so they are already making a significant impact on this year’s team,” head coach Barbara Tonry said. “They are a huge contribution to this year’s team, and we are lucky and proud to have them.”
The Elis have several freshmen who not only contribute, but also succeed, at every competition.
Jade Buford ’20, for example, competes in every event at each meet. Her impact has not gone unnoticed by the ECAC; the league has named her Rookie of the Week twice this season. She regularly places in the top two in multiple events for Yale, with numerous scores in the 9.700s and three in the 9.800s. And in last week’s meet, Buford scored a 9.900 on the floor, a personal best that is unmatched by every other gymnast on the team.
“It means a lot to be the only gymnast for Yale competing on every event,” Buford said. “Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t expect to be competing all-around and I am very honored and excited to have this opportunity. I feel great knowing that my coaches and teammates believe in my abilities enough to trust me to represent them on every event.”
Fellow rookie Rebecca Chong ’20 has been one of the most productive contributors for the Bulldogs as well. In five of the team’s seven meets, she has notched Yale’s highest vault score. On Feb. 11, she scored a 9.825 and tied for the fourth-best score in program history on the vault.
Emma Firmstone ’20, like Buford, is a regular competitor in multiple events, including the vault, beam and floor. In the latter two events, she has earned the team’s highest score in a meet — thrice on the beam and once on the floor.
And those three are not the only talented freshmen.
“Anna Jennings ’20 has been a contributor in vaulting and will be soon in the floor exercise,” Tonry said. “And Sofia Menemenlis ’20 has been a member in our floor lineup this year. Carly Israel ’20 tore her Achilles the last part of her senior year [of high school] and is just now starting to come back to practice.
Typically, it takes freshmen gymnasts a long time to adjust to the rigors of collegiate athletics, Ella Anderson ’17 said. Thus, freshmen rarely compete. Captain Tatiana Winkelman ’17 also pointed to the individualistic nature of the sport, which makes it hard for freshmen to gel with the team. But according to the seniors, the members of the class of 2020 have proven to be outliers — both as individual competitors and as teammates.
The depth of the class also aids the development of the freshmen, and the team at large, according to Firmstone.
“There is a lot of depth to this class, which is awesome because we not only can contribute a lot of great scores, but it also pushes us individually to work harder in practice so that we don’t lose our spots in the lineup,” Firmstone said. “We are all pretty competitive, so we will definitely be improving consistently throughout the next four years.”
After winning 14 Ivy League championships between 1973 and 2005, the Elis are currently in the midst of the longest title drought in Tonry’s 45-year tenure. But this Saturday, the class of 2020 will have its first of four chances to bring the program’s 15th trophy home at the Ivy Classic.
“We definitely have a good chance at winning the title on Saturday,” Firmstone said. “With a talented class coming in next year and all of the talent already on the team, we should be able to win the Ivy title [in] any of the next four years.”