"We're an Empire" | Gym Seniors Relive Storybook Journies
Digital Media Reporter
Before college, Julianna Cannamela never watched film of herself.
Gymnasts tend to be their own worst enemies. Other sports pit athletes against an external foe, a fierce tackler or an unhittable pitcher. In gymnastics, though, the primary opponent is internal.
That little voice of doubt is physically weightless. It carries no mass, but nothing matters more. And when it reaches peak volume, in moments big or small, it can exert enough force to knock even the sturdiest of athletes off balance.
That's why, even four years into their careers, Cannamela and her fellow seniors still avoid watching their routines after the fact.
“For film, they force us to watch it,” Cannamela says. “I hate watching myself, because, to me, I feel like we’re our own worst enemy. I can see every tiny little detail.”
It stands to reason, then, that the video room of the LSU Gymnastics facility, tucked away on the side of this multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art mecca of the sport, is not Cannamela’s favorite destination. Nor has it been the preferred place for her three senior teammates – Sarah Finnegan, McKenna Kelley, and Lexie Priessman – in their four years of residence here.
But it is where all four, separately, come today, 10 days before their careers conclude at the 2019 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, and nearly four full seasons after their journeys began in Baton Rouge.
What they know is this: the end is near. After thousands of routines and tens of thousands of hours practicing them, they will have finished their long and accomplished athletic careers when the championships conclude April 20.
What they don’t know is this: days before they complete their last act as LSU gymnasts, they are about to sit down and watch their first and their finest.
FINNEGAN LEADS OFF, and she will not cry.
That’s not Finnegan’s style. Equal parts grace, strength, and stability, Finnegan watches her first routine in purple and gold – a 9.85 on bars against No. 1 Oklahoma in front of a record crowd of more than 8,000 to start the 2016 season – with the same deadpan she sports while sticking flawless dismounts off the balance beam.
And, okay, maybe a slight grin.
“I think I walked in with open eyes,” she says of her first competition in the PMAC. “I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, what was going on. It was my first collegiate competition, and I’d never seen a college meet before.”
That score helped LSU take down Oklahoma and ascend to No. 1 for the seventh time in school history, and Finnegan’s been a history-maker ever since. This season, she became just the third gymnast in conference history to earn back-to-back SEC Gymnast of the Year honors and the sixth to win consecutive all-around titles in the league. She won the school’s first NCAA individual title on bars in 2017 and has 91 total titles to her name, including a school-record 45 her senior season.
“Whenever you’re going, it never feels like, ‘This was a 9.9 routine, this was a 9.95 routine, this is a 10 routine.’ It never feels like that in the moment,” she says. “But afterwards, whenever they announce the score and the PMAC erupted, it was awesome. Definitely a memory I will never forget.”
Finnegan’s transformation has been as remarkable as any in school history. She arrived at LSU with plenty of pedigree, having served as an alternate on the famous 2012 U.S. Olympic team, but she was reserved and cautious. Four years later, she’s channeled that talent into dominance, and she’s used those abilities as a platform for leadership, too.
“It’s been a journey,” she says. “My first year, I think I sat back and observed, because I didn’t know how the whole college experience worked. I went with the flow. My sophomore year, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve experienced this. I know how it’s going to go.’
“My junior and senior year, I think that’s when I came out of my shell and grew as a person and took that leadership role and embraced it. That definitely has shaped me as a person.”
As Finnegan’s film session comes to an end, she offers a prediction: Priesmann and Kelley will cry, but Cannamela won’t.
“Jules will make a face,” she says, “but she’ll keep it together.”
CANNAMELA KEEPS IT together. And she makes a face, too.
She can’t remember her first PMAC routine, an exhibition performance on beam. But she’ll never forget the career-high 9.875 she scored on floor against Alabama in 2018.
Floor anchor Kennedi Edney picked up a minor injury in warm ups, and assistant coach Jay Clark grabbed Cannamela as she left to return to the locker room. That wasn’t all that unusual, but what was unusual was where the coaches put Cannamela: sixth. The anchor spot. The spot that could decide the meet.
“Oh my God,” Cannamela recalls thinking. “I have to go. I have no choice. All I was thinking was, ‘The last time I competed on floor, I landed on my face, freshman year.’”
That came against North Carolina State in her first collegiate appearance, a 9.050 score. Two years later and too nervous to watch the floor routines in front of her, Cannamela didn’t know it, but she’d need a 9.125 to clinch the win over Alabama in front of a record crowd of more than 13,000 in the PMAC.
In other words: just don’t fall.
The first three-quarters of the routine is, like her first PMAC performance, a lost memory.
“I think I blacked out,” she says. “I realized what I was doing mid-run for last pass.”
Cannamela connected on every landing.
This time, she did not keep it together.
“I remember Myia (Hambrick) telling me, ‘It’s okay, cry. We’re all crying any way.’ I didn’t know if I was going to cry or throw up, I was so winded,” she says. “That was the best moment ever, in the PMAC. It wasn’t even the routine. It was after I landed, my team running out on the floor.”
One of the unique elements of college gymnastics is that team dynamic. After competing for individual titles for most of their lives, LSU’s gymnasts find themselves as part of a collective group when they arrive as freshmen. For many of them, like Cannamela, it helps them rediscover their love for a sport that, for young athletes, is often as grueling as it is rewarding.
“In (Junior Olympics), it felt like so much work,” she says. “I have to go again, I have to go again. Here, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, I get to go again.’ It’s night and day compared to before college.
“I came here looking for the love of the sport again. Instead, I found the love for my team, the coaches, the staff members, which made me love coming to the gym again and love doing gymnastics again. It didn’t feel like a job.”
PRIESSMAN REMEMBERS EVERYTHING. And she cries, of course.
Her recollection of her first performance in the PMAC is as vivid as the painful memories that dot the road of her journey to and through LSU. Injuries have plagued Priessman at every corner of her career, but in battling those injuries, she’s found a persistence and joy that inspires other and will propel her into the world beyond the sport.
At LSU, it all started on bars. She only exhibitioned against Oklahoma on the event that she would soon come to dominate for the Tigers. Her numbers on bars weren’t where she needed to be after nearly two years on the sidelines with an injury, but she can recall, with incredible detail, every movement of that first routine in the PMAC.
For Priessman, like Cannamela, it was an act of both discovery and rediscovery. She found, for the first time, a team of support around her, and in that team, she stumbled across the love of the sport she first felt as a child.
“I remember not knowing what to expect, just because my whole life was elite gymnastics,” she says. “Everything was more of an individual competition for us. I remember running out of the Tiger head and having chills and tears in my eyes. I definitely cried, almost the whole meet actually. I remember special moments. That was really my first time in two years competing again. I had a team that was rallying behind me, and that was something so special.”
Since, Priessman has claimed 18 titles, including 13 on bars. The most memorable was the perfect 10 she recorded this season against Georgia. It was both the first 10 of the season in the SEC and also Priessman’s first in college. As it plays on the screen in front of her, she somehow manages to see her teammates’ reactions through a liquid wall of tears.
“I have the chills,” she says. “Look at everyone’s faces. I remember landing, and it’s never crossed my mind – I’ve never looked at a score after and said, ‘I wish I would’ve gotten this or done a little better.’ I just go up and do my job. But as soon as I landed, I just kind of had a feeling like, ‘Maybe this was my moment. Maybe the 10 is there.’ That was the first time it crossed my mind. When they flashed it, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It was a special feeling I’ll never forget.”
Her well-chronicled career nearly ended four years ago, and there were times Priesmann was ready for it all to end. As the injuries piled up, she alternated between hopelessness and apathy.
“I wouldn’t think I would be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for this team and coaching staff,” she says. “I was done a while back. I thought my gymnastics career was over before I came here. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to finish this strong, with everything happening, with my body going downhill. I never saw the light at the end of the tunnel. People always told me that’s there, but it was hard for me at the time to trust that because of the injuries.”
Now the light is growing nearer, and Priessman is walking toward it, with a smile on her face, and a few tears in her eyes.
“After I experienced that first meet,” she says, “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not stopping now. This is about to be the best four years of my life.’ And it has been.”
KELLEY’S THE EXCEPTION. She’s watched these routines a few times: her first, a 9.775 floor performance in the Oklahoma win; her best, a 9.95 on the floor to clinch the SEC title in 2017.
Unlike her teammates, Kelley likes to pull up old routines on YouTube, for memory’s sake. But today, she takes in not her double layouts or powerful strides, but her teammates’ smiles.
“When you watch these routines, it’s cool to watch yourself,” she says, “but it’s so fun to watch your teammates.”
They beam as she sticks landing after landing in that 2017 title-clinching effort, just as she beams when she makes her debut against Oklahoma in the PMAC.
“I had hurt my ankle that fall, so up to that meet, I had just started practicing for a week,” she remembers. “I was really nervous. I felt so cool going fourth. That was huge, I felt like. I was really nervous I wouldn’t make my double layout around. My last pass, I kind of hobbled around on one foot, but I was so excited I got it done.”
It was the first of many dazzling floor routines that has made Kelley a four-year fan favorite. She’s developed into the Tigers’ floor anchor, a coveted spot reserved for clutch performers. In her most clutch outing, that 9.95 to win the SEC team title and the floor exercise individual title, she had no idea she would need a 9.85 to bring home the team’s first conference championship in 36 years.
That’s because Finnegan’s 9.9 floor effort just before wasn’t posted until after Kelley’s first pass in the fifth slot.
“I don’t think they told me anything before I went up,” she remembers. “They know I tend to overanalyze things. I think they were just like, ‘Go do your routine.’ It worked out.”
There’s another reason Kelley watches old routines. She’s the sentimental one of the four seniors, the one who, after their final performance in the PMAC at the NCAA Regionals on April 6, informed her teammates in the moment: Hey, y'all, this is it. This is our last time in the PMAC.
“When we sang the alma mater, that’s when it hit us,” she says. “I looked around and took it all in. It feels like a storybook.
“But we’re not done. The story’s not over.”
The four seniors have written four years’ worth of that story, and this weekend, they’ll write the final chapter. They have no clue how it will end, just as they had no clue how it would unfold when they first stepped into the arena as Tigers.
When they leave that arena for the last time, though, they know this: win or lose, their legacies will last, long after the tapes stop rolling.
“We’re an empire,” Kelley says, “and we get to be part of that, and see where this program goes.”