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Top to bottom: UK gymnastics winning with multiple contributors

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The UK gymnastics team has picked each other up in crucial situations in the early part of 2013. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) The UK gymnastics team has picked each other up in crucial situations in the early part of 2013. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Gymnastics, by nature, is a very individual sport. In each event, the athlete competes alone on bars, vault, floor and beam.

After each individual performance, gymnasts are judged and awarded a score. And that's that. On to the next event.

The UK gymnastics team has had some incredible individual athletes over the years, most notably Jenny Hansen, who holds program records for high scores in each individual event.

Junior all-around performer Audrey Harrison etched her name into the record books last weekend at Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic when she became just the 12th Wildcat to record a 9.9 on the uneven bars.

That 9.9 score, however, was crucial for Kentucky against No. 9 Arkansas. Harrison, currently Kentucky's lone all-around performer, anchored the uneven bars as the sixth and final gymnast to compete for UK. The preceding gymnasts had difficulties in their routines.

Arkansas had already scored a 48.350 after having a few mistakes of its own. After a misstep from Kayla Sienkowski, Kayla Hartley, Shelby Hilton and Alexis Gross each came to the rescue with solid performances and needed one more strong effort from their all-around ace. On each event, the top five scores are counted toward the overall meet total. With good scores from Hartley, Hilton and Gross to go with Sara Shipley's 9.8 to open the event, Harrison could erase her Sienkowski's slipup.

Harrison, as she's done all season, came through in the clutch.

She breezed through her routine nearly flawlessly. She could feel that something special was in the making. She made the final release into her dismount and stuck the landing.

While it was a special performance for Harrison, it was a momentum builder for the team. She had just helped Kentucky clinch its second event of the night after winning vault. But most importantly, she picked up her teammates when they needed her most.

"She hit that 9.9 bar routine like we needed and she finishes up events that we need her to step up on," said sophomore Alexis Gross of Harrison. "After (Sienkowski) fell, I had a bit of a rocky bar routine, and she went out there and hit that 9.9, and that stuff shows how mentally strong our juniors are."

On some of Kentucky's less successful teams in the past, athletes may have been more concerned about individual success during team struggles. This year's team puts the collective unit first and worries about personal success only with the intent of improving the team.

That's what Kentucky's early-season success has been all about. The team has been far from flawless, as head coach Tim Garrison is waiting for UK's breakthrough performance when the Wildcats put an entire meet together, but they have done a fantastic job of picking up the pieces for one another when things go awry.

They have been doing that since the first meet of the season when they traveled to California-Berkeley. When the normally sure-footed sophomore Shannon Mitchell fell off the beam, her teammates came to the rescue to cancel out her score.

"Shannon never falls on beam," said Gross. "Most of us looked at it and said, 'OK, now we have to step up for her.' When I made my routine, I told her, 'This one's for you.' "

And the Wildcats have been picking each other up ever since.

"From day one, you learn that," said Gross. "Five scores count, so if someone falls, everyone needs to pick up the slack as a team.

"It's not about individuals anymore when you get to college. It's about getting the best score for the team. It's just something that's ingrained in your brain."

While each individual event may only be performed by one athlete, the pressure of earning a perfect score is lifted when dependable and talented teammates surround one another other like they do for this team. And they never really know who it's going to be from week-to-week because, in reality, it could be and has been anyone.

Though Mitchell fell in the first meet at California-Berkeley, her performances against Arkansas left some of the best impressions of the night.

Mitchell stuck a high-score of 9.825 on the beam last Friday in her specialty event. She then turned around and gave a career performance on the floor with another 9.825 that led to her being awarded two team awards by Garrison for outstanding performances in each event.

"It was a lot of fun," said Mitchell. "I love showing my routine off on floor. On beam, I knew I just had to get up there and be confident."

Oh, and Mitchell is a walk-on.

Mitchell is a part of one Kentucky's greatest strengths that allows UK to be so versatile yet selective. It's been UK's strength in numbers that has allowed it to get off to its best start in program history.

"We have a lot more depth than last year," said Mitchell. "We know that if someone goes down, which we hope doesn't happen, we know that we have the seventh spot to step up and be strong."

This team, this collection of individuals, is a tight-knit group that performs for each of its members. The Cats perform and compete for the betterment of this UK gymnastics team. And you just never know where or when you're going to get a key contribution in the lineup.

That's mostly because it is hard to pick from a pool of 12. Garrison is using 12 different gymnasts in his lineup. Arkansas, by comparison, only used 10 on Friday night.

"It's all about you coming here and you do the best you can," said Garrison. "You win the job and it's yours. They're made aware of it very, very early. As a matter of fact, they're made aware of it in the recruiting process."

Scholarship or walk-on. Freshman or junior (UK has no seniors, which makes this team's start all the more impressive). If you're one of the six best in the gym, you're going to perform in that event no matter who you are.

Kentucky currently has 10 scholarship athletes. Garrison carries five walk-ons. Currently, three of those walk-ons hold a total of five lineup spots.

Perhaps the best example of Garrison's philosophy was displayed against Arkansas when freshman Marissa Beucler made her collegiate debut on beam. A January enrollee, Beucler had just been ruled eligible the day before the meet. When Friday rolled around, it was Beucler on the beam delivering a 9.825, which tied her with Mitchell for the team's high score in the event.

It was an impressive debut for an athlete who was facing the bright lights for the first time in her collegiate career.

"Down there on the floor with all these people watching, the first time after everything she's dealt with, she hit her set when she had to," said Garrison. "I think she's going to work her way into more lineups. There's no doubt about that."

As the competition builds in practice to earn spots in Kentucky's seemingly stacked lineup, some will see their roles increase, while others will see them diminish.

Gross, who was often an all-around performer last season due to small numbers and team needs, has focused mostly on beam and uneven bars this season. Now she is needed in a different capacity.

Though she continues to strive to be an all-around performer again someday, Gross, not to mention the rest of the team, is on board with letting the best six compete as long as the team keeps improving and winning.

"To be honest, that's the greatest thing," said Gross. "Last year, we had a smaller team. I did all-around and stuff like that was necessary to pick up the slack. This year, we can put our best six out there and I know that those are the best six people in each event."

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