It’s one of the oldest adages in the English language: “time flies.” But for Penn gymnastics, three years can feel like a lifetime.
Back in 2015, when the current seniors were freshmen, the Quakers took home the Ivy Classic championship at the Palestra, capping a stellar run that included four titles in a nine-year span. But after coming up short in two straight years, the program finds itself in an unfamiliar spot, one where more than three quarters of the roster has never seen a conference championship in her college career.
Though most programs would hesitate to refer to a two-season title hiatus as a drought, the mentality for this year’s Quakers is clear. It’s “championship-or-bust time” for the Red and Blue, and the 2018 squad is more than ready to do so.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where we don’t think about wanting a ring,” junior co-captain Caroline Moore said. “We all walk in here each day and we say, ‘We need a ring.’”
“That was the best day of my life,” senior and student assistant coach Emily Shugan, who competed in 2015, added. “Since that day, we’ve been waiting to relive that, and I think this year has the most potential to do that since.”
It’s not just in motivation where Penn has an edge. Taking a look at their personnel, the Quakers appear set to have both their deepest and most talented squad in years.
Last year’s team only had two seniors out of 19 athletes. And while those two recent graduates, Kelly Tan and Rachel Graham, were talented enough to be among Penn’s 12 selections to the USA Gymnastics Nationals, it still means the Quakers return 89 percent of their 2017 roster, most out of the Ivy League schools.
And the Red and Blue return not just quantity, but plenty of quality too. Among other standouts, sophomore Emma Cullen already ranks No. 2 in school history on bars, senior co-captain Kyra Levi and junior Nicole Swirbalus were both 2017 USAG All-Americans on the floor, and Moore is both the Ivy League’s and ECAC’s defending champion on vault.
With all of that talent coming back, one thing is clear. The Red and Blue have all the ingredients needed to make a run at the conference throne again, and they’re fully aware that this year’s team has potential to be special.
“There’s a lot more depth in all the events; now instead of having six people compete for spots in an event, we might be having 10,” Swirbalus said. “We definitely have the most talented team we’ve had in the last few years.”
For much of last season, it looked like that team would be the one to return to the top of the podium. At their best, the 2017 Quakers had scores in the 193s — generally the rough level where the Ivy Classic champion lands — in four of their ten meets, including a season-high 193.950 at Temple where a group of Levi and four freshmen set a school record on the bars event.
But when it came down to the biggest competitions of the season, Penn came up short, falling to Cornell by a mere 0.400 points in the 2017 Ivy Classic before sliding into a surprisingly low sixth-place finish at the ECAC title meet.
“Last year we had so much potential, and we started off the season looking like a championship team,” Moore said. “This year’s team is even better than last year, so I think that overall, the expectations have definitely increased.”
As much as those finishes hurt in the moment, though, they could pay off dividends for the Red and Blue a year later.
And with the team's motivation, depth and star power all combined together — not to mention the ECAC Championships being hosted by Penn — it could be the perfect recipe for the Quakers to jump back to the top of the Ivy gymnastics world.
“I think we feel like this team that we have now, in comparison to that 2015 team ... if we could get a ring with that team, then we absolutely can with this team,” Shugan said. “We want to bring that Palestra magic back.”
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