To call Jenny Hansen's career as a gymnast at the University of Kentucky "decorated" would be a gross understatement. Running down a list of her achievements is mind-boggling in and of itself.
Eight NCAA gymnastics championship titles. A record three straight all-around titles from 1993 to 1995. Thirteen All-America honors. Kentucky Sportsman of the Year in 1995. Most outstanding gymnast of the past 25 years as recognized by the NCAA.
Simply put, she's still the greatest gymnast in program history and one of the best student-athletes to don UK's colors.
For Hansen, though, the honors that meant the most were her inductions into the hall of fames for both UK and the state of Kentucky. Being recognized alongside fellow inductees like Pat Riley, Allan Houston, Tim Couch and Hillerich & Bradsby (the makers of Louisville Slugger baseball bats) was an experience that stopped Hansen in her tracks.
"It's kind of surreal," Hansen said. "I think of myself as Jenny Hansen. I'm Jen. I'm Hansen. I'm just me. I've been given this amazing gift and this incredible talent to be able to do what I can do. For the University of Kentucky and the state of Kentucky to recognize me and put me in their hall of fame, I was just blown away. There are no words really to explain it."
Humility and self-awareness are traits that we look for in athletes, but finding them in genuine form is often a tall task. With Hansen, they are unmistakable. She recognizes that the natural talent that she has been blessed with is a gift; a gift that has taken her places she could not possibly have foreseen; a gift that she believes she is responsible for stewarding and continuing to share with others.
It's that kind of attitude that has brought Hansen back to the place that made her a hall of famer: the gym. Her return started out as a foray into the world of television when a friend called her while Hansen was living and working in North Dakota.
"Two years ago, one of my best friends is a stunt woman, she called me up when I was living in North Dakota and she said, 'You need to train again, there's a show,' " Hansen said.
The cable television channel ABC Family was beginning filming on a new show that needed skilled gymnasts. Hansen picked up and moved to Simi Valley, Calif., for the new gig.
"I started training for this show called 'Make It or Break It,' " Hansen said. "It's an ABC Family show and it's about four girls that are trying to make the Olympics in gymnastics. They needed gymnasts and I ended up being a gymnastics double on the show and then I did background work and things like that."
Hansen had not seriously trained for a while, but the competitive fire that still burned inside of her responded in a way that she didn't foresee. She took her workouts "to the highest level" and found that her substantial talents had not yet been lost to the hands of time. Production on the second season of the show wrapped in December, but Hansen was not willing to end things there.
In fact, she has even higher aspirations. More than 15 years removed from her final season at UK, Hansen is trying to re-enter the elite level of gymnastics competition.
"That was for two years and at the end of December, we just finished up season two and during that time I guess I just started feeling like I wanted to continue on and keep working on it," Hansen said. "My ultimate goal would be to get to the Olympics but my current goal is just to try to get on the national team."
Of all sports, gymnastics is one that perhaps belongs most to the young. The roster of the United States national team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics included three 16-year-old gymnasts, one 18-year-old and two 20-year-olds. For perspective, Hansen was in college in the mid 1990s.
Hansen recognizes the challenge in front of her and embraces it. She is just a couple weeks away from the next milestone in her comeback. She will be participating in an elite qualifier on July 2 in Houston and there are two more meets on the horizon if things go according to plan.
"If I get the qualifying score, I'll get to go to the Cover Girl Classic and that's in Chicago," Hansen said. "In Chicago, hopefully I'll get the qualifying score to go to the Visa Championships in St. Paul (Minn.). This year that's my ultimate goal."
Hansen has learned the hard way that there is a reason why youth is favored in gymnastics, but the journey has been enjoyable nonetheless.
"There are a few little injuries that pop up, so I've had to back off my training a little bit, then I go back to it," Hansen said. "It's frustrating, but at the same time it's so much fun."
Naturally, Hansen is the type of athlete that will push herself to the brink in her preparation, even if the odds tell her that her chances of succeeding are extremely slim. Being more advanced in age than the last time she competed, Hansen has learned how to listen to what her own body is saying.
"It's taken a bit for me to listen to my body and what it needs," Hansen said. "I just can't stop and not work and everything is going to start piling up. It's my responsibility, as an adult, to keep myself afloat."
Also helping in her efforts is her sister, who serves as her coach for meets.
"I was talking to my middle sister who was on the national team in 1986 or 1987," Hansen said, "and I said, 'I don't know what to do. I don't have a coach and I have to go to this meet.' And she said, 'I'll be your coach.' She registered with USA Gymnastics. She got her coaching registration, she got all of this stuff and at the meets, she's my coach. It's really great."
While Hansen calls training her "full-time job," she still spends time as a personal trainer for a few clients and as a coach at her gym in California.
"I do a little personal training on the side, since out here you have to do everything," Hansen said. "I do a little personal training; I just have three clients. They're so much fun and I love working with them. I incorporate the gymnastics that I know and the things that I'm learning now. It's fun. I like encouraging these women. I also coach at the gym that I train at, only two days a week."
Once her gymnastics career reaches a conclusion, Hansen isn't willing to restrict herself to a single profession. Rest assured, though, she'll be using her talents and background as a gymnast, whether as a stunt woman, a trainer or a coach.
"That's my ultimate goal, to stay in the stunt world," Hansen said. "I would really like to do personal training and motivate people and maybe even motivate kids just to have fun in the sports that they do. There's so many things that I love doing and I want to stay in everything. I don't want to have just one occupation."
Whatever the future holds, much of Hansen's foundation was established during her time at the University of Kentucky. Though it was two decades ago, Hansen still looks back at her college experience fondly, from competition to academics to social life.
"An amazing experience," Hansen said. "I can't say enough about (then-UK head coach) Leah Little and (assistant coach) Tim Myers. I loved UK. I loved the college experience, I loved my roommates."
Hansen was especially full of praise for the athletic training staff during her time at UK, as well as her professors and classmates that she got to know as she worked toward her degree in animal science equine. Hansen had to cope with dyslexia as a student and said that without the support and tutoring at Kentucky's Center for Academic and Tutorial Services, her success in school would not have been possible.
"The CATS program was amazing," Hansen said. "Mike Haley, he was my adviser and he was the best. I would ask Mike what classes I should take and he was like, 'OK, Hansen, this is what you're going to do.' Being a student-athlete, you're so focused on (sports) that it was nice to have that CATS program to help you through so many difficulties, especially because I am dyslexic. That was a big help in my school."
Hansen has had the chance to briefly introduce herself to UK's newly-minted gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison and had a very positive impression about where he will take the program. She said that she was impressed by the work Garrison did with a gymnastics team in California close to Hansen's home.
"He was really great," Hansen said. "It's crazy that he's only the third coach at UK. I wish him success. I saw that he coached out here and he got a couple girls to nationals and things."
Little, Hansen's coach at UK, was largely responsible for the founding of the gymnastics program at the school. If there is one thing about Little that Hansen hopes Garrison can duplicate, it is the infusion of a spirit of fun into training and competition.
"I hope he keeps it fun for the girls," Hansen said. "That's what Leah was so wonderful at. She pushed us, but she let us enjoy our college experience. If we had problems, she would talk to us. There were times when I would just need a hug and she said OK and it was always such a heartfelt hug. She was right there with us. When we were crying, she would try to console us."