Roughly two-thirds into our phone call, I finally pulled off the impossible — I made Kyra Levi crack.
Up to this point, the Penn gymnastics senior had taken on all other questions with elegance and poise, the same poise she uses to excel in athletics, and classes, and tutoring, and everything else she does. But against all odds, to both of our surprise, the two-time captain was finally stumped.
She stalled, then apologized to me for stalling, promised to come up with a competent answer and performed this cycle on repeat. This went on for approximately a full minute — which probably felt like five to her — before she finally pieced something together to solve her brief existential crisis.
So how did I manage to do it? What could I possibly have asked to get the heart and soul of Penn gymnastics to break?
“Is there anything you aren’t good at?”
And that’s perhaps the only fitting way to begin the story of Kyra Levi.
The list of awards that Levi holds now is almost too thorough to even bother listing. She’s the two-time defending ECAC Scholar-Athlete of the Year. The current ECAC champion in the bars event. A first team USA Gymnastics All-American on the floor exercise — which she has the chance to do for a second straight time in this weekend’s USAG Nationals meet.
But if one travels back only a few years, Levi wasn’t exactly destined to become the superstar she is today.
Raised in State College, PA, her collegiate choices quickly whittled down to two. Stay in her backyard to attempt to walk-on at a powerful Penn State program, one that’s currently ranked No. 32 and has qualified for three straight NCAA Championships, or head to University City to join coach John Ceralde’s improving but less nationally prominent Penn squad.
Could be a tough call for most. But for those who know anything about the well-rounded senior, it should come as no surprise that the eventual decision was a no-brainer.
“I really cared about school, and I knew that I wanted to go into healthcare, so I started looking at Ivies. I felt like I could be pushed [at Penn] with the team; a lot of schools just stop teaching gymnastics, but I figured I could learn more here,” she said. “The girls seemed more focused in the entire experience of being a student-athlete than I think a lot of other places could’ve provided me.”
A desire to explore passions outside gymnastics, and a desire to always find ways to improve. Even before stepping foot on Penn’s campus, she was demonstrating the traits that would push her into a legendary career.
That dominance wouldn’t come immediately, though. As a freshman, Levi competed almost exclusively on floor. And while she had her moments — scoring 9.725 in the 2015 Ivy Classic to help the Quakers win the conference title — fellow rookies Megan Finck and Emily Shugan tended to put up the bigger numbers for the championship team.
Even when she wasn’t necessarily one of the team’s highest-scoring stars, though, teammates and coaches knew there was something special in the making.
“Immediately you could tell that Kyra really had the characteristics of a leader, even at a younger age in college. She was someone that just worked hard every single day in the gym, and she’s really earned her spot and all of the awards she’s gotten,” assistant coach and 2013 Penn graduate Kirsten Strausbaugh said. “She maybe didn’t start off with the most talent, but she worked her way into becoming consistent.”
Behind closed doors, Penn’s personnel knew what was brewing. In the years that would follow, the rest of the college gymnastics world would learn, too.
With its constant wear and tear on athletes’ wrists, knees and ankles, gymnastics is a sport where it’s common, if not almost required, for athletes to peak early. Look at the Olympic rosters in any given year, and they’ll consist primarily of teenagers. Back at the 2016 Rio Games, Team USA star Aly Raisman was lovingly referred to as “Grandma” by her teammates — she of only 22 years old at the Olympics’ conclusion.
But someone forgot to tell Levi that you’re not supposed to get better as you get older.
Her sophomore season saw a major jump, as she became equally comfortable on bars as she was on floor, once scoring a 9.900 on bars to rise to No. 3 in school history. She qualified for the USAG Nationals meet in both events after not doing so in either as a freshman, and she was only just getting started.
“It was less about physically getting better, and more about finding her role and finding her confidence. But once she found it, you couldn’t put a stop to it,” said Shugan, who now serves as a student assistant coach. “Coming in a freshman can be intimidating if you don’t know what’s expected of you, so I think it took her a bit of time to figure that out. But once she did, she’s unstoppable.”
By the start of her junior year, Levi had already done enough to be voted as a team captain. In the time since, she’s more than proven her colleagues right.
Most athletes have one or two signature moments that define their careers — maybe a game-winning jump shot, or a pivotal blocked field goal, or a no-hitter on the mound. In these past two seasons, Levi has more than you can count on your hands.
When Penn went off for its highest season-opening score in program history at the 2017 Lindsey Ferris Invitational, it was Levi who was the meet’s bars champion with a 9.850.
When the Quakers exploded at Temple last March to set the school record on bars, it was Levi leading a group of herself and four freshmen, with the veteran matching her elite 9.900 score from a year prior.
When she returned to the USAG Nationals meet for the second time, she made the most of her appearance, taking seventh place on floor to earn that first team All-American moniker.
When she was granted the opportunity to compete at Penn State for only the second time in her college career this February, she showed out in front of her friends, family, and former coaches, winning the meet on bars with her third career 9.900-point performance.
When Penn tied its school record on floor this March in its Senior Meet, she hit the same 9.900 score on that event, also good for No. 3 in school history.
When the Quakers hosted the ECAC Championships for her final competition in the Palestra, Levi was at her best again, winning the individual bars championship and earning ECAC Scholar-Athlete of the Award for the second straight year.
“Each year, I’ve kind of went in with the focus of, ‘last year I learned a lot, but this year, I can’t just do the same things, I have to carry over what I did last year and add on to that,’” Levi said. “So learning more things, figure out how to be more consistent and a more positive team member, that was just my mindset at the beginning of each season.”
Clearly the highs are very high for the senior, but how does she handle it when she hits her lows?
Trick question — they haven’t been happening anymore.
As impressive as Levi’s collective career has been, the year she’s currently having is redefining the word consistency.
In a sport with such miniscule margins of error, everyone’s bound to slip up at some point. You can’t go a whole season without your foot falling off the beam, or your hands slipping off the bars, or a shaky landing from the vault.
Yet Levi has competed in a combined 31 events through 11 meets this season. Her worst score in any of them is a 9.600 out of 10.
“She went 100 percent this year, which in my four years here I’ve never seen anyone do. Especially doing three events; hitting one event every meet is hard enough, but to hit three every single time in insane,” Shugan said. “And a lot of that is, Kyra is probably the most selfless person I know; she doesn’t do any of this for herself.”
Levi’s personal stats, as go without saying, will have her name in the program record books for years to come. But ask anyone involved with the program, and it’s still what she does behind the Rockwell Gym doors when no one’s watching that holds exponentially more impressive.
“Kyra’s a special person, in the fact that she will put her all into absolutely everything that she does — and when I say everything, I mean inside and outside the gym,” sophomore bars specialist Caroline Mitsch said. “If she can just get a little better to help the team a little bit more, anything she can, she will. She’s one of the most selfless people I know, and if you asked her, she would say she’s doing this not for herself, but for the team.”
Great athletes know all about putting in the work to improve themselves, and Levi is no exception there. But great leaders complement that drive to get better with an equal, if not bigger, drive to improve those around them.
And that, more than any of her own awards, is what separates Levi from the rest.
“It’s really nice to have somebody that it comes so natural for. Leading by example is just in her nature,” Strausbaugh said. “It’s not something that she has to go out of her way to make sure she’s doing. It automatically happens every single day in the gym; that’s just her character.”
Yet another unique trait of gymnastics is its monotony in practices. There’s no opponent to scout for, no new plays to draw up in any given week — every time around, the preparation is the exact same.
Combine that repetitive nature of the sport with the inherently grueling academic and social nature of Penn, and it could be easy for athletes to get caught up in that cycle and take days off, knowing that the next one will be the exact same. But Levi doesn’t let that happen.
“It can definitely get hard, but I think on those days that are hard, I really try to get back to the roots of why we’re in the gym,” she said, “We have other things to do, we have school, we have friends, a whole bunch of other things that we could and should be doing, but we choose to be there. And it’s because we love the sport, we care about our teammates, and we want to help each other succeed.”
On Levi’s best event is also where her leadership is most needed: the bars. This season, every single Quaker besides her to compete on the bars has been either a freshman or sophomore.
And that’s just the way Levi would like it. Having her own success is nice, but she undoubtedly cares more about grooming the next generation to eventually surpass her own marks.
That next generation appreciates those efforts more than can be put into words.
“She takes a huge leadership role, and she does it better than anyone else I know could. One thing that’s pretty special about being able to compete on bars with her is her attitude every single day. She’s there not just to help herself, but everyone around her be the best they can be,” Mitsch said. “Whether she’s having a really hard day, whether she’s hurting a lot, she’s always there to help us in every way she can.”
Ask Levi about her impact, and the naturally humble leader will deflect all credit — ”these girls are really, really good gymnasts, and they didn’t necessarily learn that from me,” she says.
But whether she wants to own up to it or not, her unselfishness and daily approach have left a major imprint on the program, one that will last far beyond when her last college competition wraps up on Sunday.
“It rubs off on everyone around her, and it’s rubbed off on me to want to go into the gym every single day and give everything my all,” Mitsch said. “If I’m exhausted from school, exhausted from practice or conditioning, her leading by example has shown all of us that even when you maybe don’t have as much as you’d like to give, you still give it your all.”
If gymnastics was all that defined Kyra Levi, the story would be special in its own right. But Levi the person adds a whole new dimension that Levi the gymnast can’t approach.
The senior is the President of the school’s “Red and Blue Crew,” a student group designed to boost fan interest in Penn sports. She also serves as one of approximately 30 tutors in the Student-Athlete Academic Achievement Program, where she primarily helps fellow student-athletes in Biological Basis of Behavior courses.
When she finally has time to study on her own, Levi is a Health and Societies major — with a double minor, of course, in Healthcare Management and BBB.
“The amazing thing about her is that she does handle all of that, and I’ve never once seen her implode. I’ve never seen her present herself as overwhelmed or stressed. And it’s not that she never feels that way, but it’s the way she manages those feelings and works through everything with a positive light,” Shugan said. “Gymnastics for her is an outlet — to a lot of people it might add more stress, but for her, to get into the gym is the highlight of her day.”
Take a deeper look at Levi’s hobbies, and you might notice a theme. When she’s not competing as a Penn athlete, she’s helping other athletes in their studies. When she’s not doing that, she’s helping encourage other students to come watch Penn sporting events.
Simply put, it’s hard to find a better ambassador for Penn Athletics anywhere. And it came as no surprise when she won the Penn Athletics PNC Student-Athlete Achievers Award this February in honor of her lifetime contributions.
“It’s incredibly unique that we offer such a strong athletic program here, and that’s part of the reason I came here,” Levi said. “And I think that’s really easy to forget. Even I forget that sometimes because you’re so focused on extracurriculars and school and jobs, we forget what’s right under our noses. So I think it’s important for a school that has so much pressure on its students to find something that ties us together.”
Yet Levi insists she still finds the time to be a normal college student on occasion. And even when she’s outside the Rockwell walls, her outgoing and almost excessively kind demeanor makes her a popular figure all across campus.
“Overall, she’s just genuine,” Ceralde said, when asked of his captain’s defining trait. “Just her character, her leadership, her personality, all of it. She’s wonderful.”
“I feel like I walk down Locust with her, and she says hi to all these people, and I’m like, ‘wow, maybe I should get out a little bit more,’” Mitsch added. “Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Kyra, right?”
Even with such an expansive friend group, though, Levi’s loyalty never fades. Every minute of every day is dedicated to helping somebody with something. And even if it leads to her being the butt of the occasional joke, it’s an attitude that Levi will take with her throughout the rest of her life.
“We always joke about her, we all have different majors and someone will say, ‘oh, I have this paper to write,’ and literally the first thing out of her mouth is, ‘let me help you write it,’” Shugan laughed. “It’s like, ‘you don’t even know what is about,’ but she always is the first person to offer to help in every way, and that’s why we all love her so much.”
Once this weekend wraps up, Levi’s athletic career will indeed be over. She confirmed that she won’t pursue any post-college athletic opportunities, instead moving to Boston to join a consulting firm called Clarion Healthcare.
It comes as a fitting next chapter in Levi’s life — somehow, some way, she’s managed to continue being part of something bigger than herself.
“It’s essentially another team I’m moving onto; it’s a really good dynamic, a really strong culture, and they really care about their work,” she said. “I think it’s really neat, so I will be up there to figure out how to make that transition from being a gymnast.”
For what it’s worth, back to our question at the beginning of the story, Levi did finally give an answer. After endless deliberation, she cited singing and card games as her fatal flaws.
So it turns out Levi is human. But with that said, maybe one of the most universally missed humans in Penn gymnastics history. One whose impact transcends statistics, one who has inspired younger athletes in all facets of their lives, and who’s perhaps the most well-rounded and selfless leader this program has ever seen.
Even if she’s too humble to admit it.
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