|| OU Women's Gymnastics Updates|
NORMAN, Okla. - Oklahoma senior Jessica Kinder reveals a slight grin after sticking a front aerial – straddle jump - back hand spring - swing down combo on balance beam as the reigning Big 12 Champion OU women’s gymnastics squad opens its third week of official practices Monday afternoon at the Sam Viersen Gymnastics Center.
It’s one of two new series for the Kansas City, Mo., native who also plans to unveil a front hand spring - rudi - punch layout pass on floor in 2009.
The almost unnoticeable smirk is about the extent of Kinder’s ostentatiousness, as the 5-foot-2-inch model-of-calm prefers to let her gymnastics ability speak for itself.
It’s an attitude that resonates from Kinder’s roller-coaster ride of emotion through the first three years of her time on the OU campus.
“Jess is positive, always smiling and extremely inquisitive - always searching for ways to improve and asking questions about her performance,” said head coach K.J. Kindler. “She has a good sense of humor and is confident in everything that she does, but not to the point where it becomes arrogant. She is supportive and encouraging to everyone in the gym.”
Her journey began like many others aspiring gymnasts at this level – started gymnastics at the age of six, spent innumerable hours and incalculable dollars in club training and performed just well enough to catch the eyes of select collegiate coaches for a walk-on spot.
After passing elite compulsory, the four-time Junior Olympic Nationals qualifier was voted best athlete at Raytown High School in 2004.
Earning an invited walk-on spot by former OU head coach Steve Nunno, Kinder arrived in Norman later that fall feeling the typical emotions of an 18-year-old college freshman.
“Family had always played a vital part in my life and having to spend time away from them for the first time in my life was extremely hard on me,” said Kinder. “It was the summer before I started college, which is supposed to be the best time of your life, and here I was feeling like I was packing my entire life into boxes for storage.”
Kinder had always relied on gymnastics for stability during tumultuous times, but soon found that the sport she adored so much was the root of much of her anxiety her freshman year, as the Sooners struggled to a 17-17 record.
“I didn’t think that our team chemistry was where it should have been that first year,” recalls Kinder. “But here I was a walk-on in my first year with the program. I didn’t really feel that I had earned the right to speak out yet. My only expectations were to try and contribute to the team any way possible and stay healthy.”
Through the difficult transition, Kinder’s love for the sport never wavered as she silently posted key routines for the Sooners in an alternate role, including a career-high-tying 9.85 on floor against LSU.
Although she competed on three events for the Sooners during her freshman campaign after battling back from a hyper-extended knee halfway through the season, Kinder made what she proclaims “one of the hardest decisions of my life” in the spring of ’05, deciding not to return to the Oklahoma gymnastics program for her sophomore season.
“I still had that desire to compete and a love for gymnastics, which made my decision that much more difficult,” Kinder reflects. “I just felt that it was in my best interest to move on.”
“I felt like I would be throwing it all away if I quit gymnastics all together,” said Kinder. “I still felt as though I could do something with it, so I stuck with my training program on my own the best I could, to keep in shape and not lose my skills.”
Following the year off, Kinder soon caught word that former Iowa State head coach K.J. Kindler would be named the next Oklahoma women’s gymnastics coach.
“When I found out the K.J. and Lou (Ball) were taking the new position, I was on the phone with them right away, almost before OU had even had the chance to make their announcement,” Kinder laughs.
“Everyone that I had spoken with had nothing but good things to say about the way they ran a program. It was definitely a group that I wanted to surround myself with. I had called her to kind of feel her out before deciding whether I wanted to return to the team and I remember her telling me that ‘anyone with a love for gymnastics is welcome in our program’. Right when she said that, I knew it was going to be a great experience.”
Kindler offered her an opportunity to re-join the Sooner program in 2007, where Kinder exhibitioned on floor while acclimating herself to the demands of collegiate gymnastics for the second time.
“I came back after my redshirt year and it was a great environment,” said Kinder. “The team chemistry was improving and team priorities were focused on becoming a better squad by helping each other out.”
Coach Kindler echoed the importance Kinder and the other walk-ons to the OU program.
“To be an OU Gymnastics walk-on is extremely underrated,” said Kindler. Unfortunately, to the general public, the words ‘walk-on’ tend to hold a less prestigious position, but that’s not the case in our program. We feel honored to work with, learn about and teach all of our athletes.”
Following a productive voluntary summer training regime, expectations were raised for Kinder entering the 2008-09 year.
Then Kinder suffered the latest set-back, severely injuring her ankle during preseason workouts, sidelining the redshirt-junior for the first three meets of the season.
“It only fueled my desire for the sport more,” said Kinder. “I was back to loving gymnastics with the passion that I had for it early on and was practically begging to get back in the line-up. I knew that our team had a chance to be special and I wanted to be a part of it.
Her impact was felt immediately, as Kinder posted a 9.85 on floor in her first meet of the season against West Virginia on Jan. 27. Coach Kindler singled-out Kinder after the meet when speaking to the media about the team’s performance, referring to Kinder’s routines as “the missing link” on floor and vault.
Her performance against the Mountaineers proved to be just a glimpse of what she was capable of, as Kinder performed much more like a scholarship veteran than a walk-on who had not seen significant action since 2005.
She went on to record six top-five finishes in 2008 and tied career highs on vault (9.825) and floor (9.85) at the Big 12 Championship, helping secure OU’s first conference title in four years. Kinder would also match her career-best floor score at the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga., tying for 11th-place.
The model student-athlete, Kinder was one of two Big 12 gymnasts to earn a perfect 4.0 GPA for the 2008-09 school year, joining teammate Caitlin Hinkis.
“Last season was one of the best times of my life,” said Kinder. “With how our team performed, going undefeated during the regular season and reaching our team goal of winning Big 12’s, I couldn’t have been happier. Plus I feel that individually, I really proved to the coaches and my teammates that I could be relied upon week in and week out.”
Her dedication to the sport she adored earned Kinder a scholarship offer for her senior season from Kindler, the 2008 Big 12 Coach of the Year.
“In her fifth year of college gymnastics, Jessica is a relatively rare occurrence in women's gymnastics,” said Kindler. Many gymnasts at age 23 are spectators, not participants. I know her teammates recognize this and admire her passion for the sport. Our staff has immense respect for her decision to return to collegiate gymnastics and her drive to be her absolute personal best.”
“Earning that scholarship for my senior season, just increases my desire to put forth 110 percent in every aspect this year,” said Kinder. “I’ve been through too much to leave anything in the tank.”
Kindler points out just how difficult it is to grasp Kinder’s full-circle journey.
“Jess went from the cellar to the penthouse last season in terms of her competitive participation. After taking an entire year off following her freshman season, she had a lot of ground to cover. She never complained or became visibly frustrated during her ‘comeback’. She felt it was a privilege to have the opportunity and she has given her all every day since she walked in the door. She saw limited action as a sophomore as an alternate on floor and was called upon to contribute in three events as a junior. She actually came very close to being an all-arounder last season and I expect you could see her on all four events this year.”
Kinder is one of 11 returning members from last season’s squad that posted a program-best-tying eight-place finish at the NCAA Championships. With an experienced returning core and a group of talented freshmen, the squad remains optimistic when looking towards the future of OU women’s gymnastics.
“Oh, we have already set some pretty loft goals for ourselves,” Kinder interjects. “Not just this season, because I truly believe OU will make a name for itself on the national stage.”
As the redshirt-senior sets her eyes on 2009, her coach is quick to make certain that Kinder doesn’t underestimate the obstacles that she overcame to put herself in this position.
“Jess earned a full scholarship this season, an incredible honor, but her greatest gymnastics accomplishment was returning to the sport after her year-long absence. This took guts, patience, strength, desire, motivation and heart. To finish your athletic career at the highest skill level you have ever achieved is the dream of most athletes and I believe Jess should be proud that she is in this position.”
Although her time in a Sooners leotard will end this spring, Kinder’s dedication to the Oklahoma program will not. Upon graduation, the NACGC All-American Scholar Athlete will serve in the capacity of graduate assistant for the women’s gymnastics program for the 2009-10 school year while pursuing a masters degree in intercollegiate athletics administration.
“I’m thrilled to be able to give back to the university and a gymnastics program that have given me so much,” said Kinder. “I can say without a doubt that the current coaching staff is the reason that I am still competing. Training by myself that year I was just hoping for a new opportunity to get in the gym and prove that I belonged there. K.J. and the rest of the staff have provided that chance.”
Phillip Rogers - OU Women's Gymnastics Sports Information Director