GymKat Seniors Helped Take UK to New Heights

March 18, 2002

Senior Salute (printable version in PDF format)
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When the University of Kentucky gymnastics team took the mats on Friday, March 8, the GymKats and the home fans got one last opportunity to say goodbye to four seniors and say thanks for years of dedication to taking the UK program to a new level.

Taking center stage for the last time in Memorial Coliseum was Nicole Allen, Jessie Lemp, Jennifer Simmons and Katie Toups.

This quartet of lifelong gymnasts has shared much during their careers. From shaking off the jitters of competing for the first time in the tough Southeastern Conference to fighting injury to breaking school records to saying goodbye, these GymKats have been through a lot.But through it all, they have accomplished what the coaches knew they could.

"This group of seniors is as good a batch of quality athletes as we've had come in as a group," Coach Leah Little said. "The whole class has stayed together and made tremendous contributions to taking UK gymnastics to the next level as a team. This group does not want to graduate without competing at the national championships. They were close last year, and I think with their leadership, competitive experience and desire to do well, they will accomplish that goal."

Jessie Lemp
Despite the fact that none of the GymKat seniors are Kentucky natives, they each have taken pride in donning the Blue and White. And when "My Old Kentucky Home" was played through the Coliseum speakers, they looked back on the wonderful roads that led them to that point.

Lemp and Simmons arrived at UK from the Lone Star state where the pair had established themselves as two of the top gymnastics prospects in the nation. Lemp was a former Level 10 Junior Olympic All-Around Champion, while Simmons was a highly decorated club gymnast who won numerous titles in Texas and was a member of the 1995 US National team.

As with most athletes, Lemp and Simmons got their starts early. Lemp's career began at the age of five in the Carpenter Shop Day Care in Houston, Texas. Her coaches there talked her parents into sending her to an actual gym where she blossomed from day one. In Pasadena, Texas, Simmons began just as early but for different reasons.

"Back then, I had a lot of energy," Simmons said. "I was out of control, so my parents decided to put me in gymnastics. They hoped it would control how hyper I was, and I guess it would also get me out of their hair for a few hours a week!"

Regardless of the reasons, their parents' decisions turned out to be good ones for UK. A young coach in Texas by the name of Hajile Muhammad had seen the two compete for years. In 1997, Coach Mo, as he is affectionately known, was hired as an assistant at UK, and the next year he knew Lemp and Simmons would benefit the program, so the pair came to the Bluegrass. And they made an instant impact.

Jennifer Simmons
As a freshman at Kentucky, Lemp competed in the all-around and posted a career-high 38.950 at the 1999 SEC Championships, while Simmons had a career-high 39.375 in the all-around and won the 1999 Southeast Regional Vault title.

"Jennifer came to Kentucky, a highly touted athlete, and rightfully so," Muhammad said. "She is an outstanding athlete, strong and hard working. Jessie is the epitome of the student-athlete. Having known Jessie for close to 15 years, I can honestly say she has been nothing but a joy to work with."

However, the next year would be trying times for the Texas duo.

In warm-ups at the 1999 Southeast Regionals, Lemp tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee putting her career in doubt. While she spent the next few months rehabbing the injury and preparing to reenter the lineup, Simmons was preparing to top her stellar freshman season. But she, too, fell victim to injury when she broke her right ankle in practice after just one meet into her sophomore year.

While Simmons rehabbed her injury, Lemp worked back from hers.

"If there was one thing I could change about my career, I think it would be avoiding that knee injury," Lemp said. "Even with all the extra physical therapy and training I do, my knee will never feel the same. I have accepted that fact though, and I am just thankful that I can contribute and compete for this team. Being there for my team is now and always has been my motivation for coming back from injuries and working through pain."

Lemp returned to compete on the uneven bars and vault during her sophomore season. She was second on the team on the bars and established a then-career-high with a 9.875 giving the GymKats a solid contribution on the two events.

In the meantime, Simmons continued her rehab.

"I pushed myself because I was excited about coming back after my sophomore year," Simmons said. "I felt that I pushed myself to get back, and because of my injury I appreciated just being able to do gymnastics. I missed competing, but my teammates were always behind me. They never gave up on me, and they always included me as part of the team. I never quite realized how special this team is."

Also at that time, Toups and Allen were also going through some trials and tribulations as well.

Along with Lemp and Simmons, Toups arrived at UK in 1998 from the South. The Baton Rouge, La., native got her start at age two in recreation gymnastics and started competing at seven, following the footsteps of her sister, Kristy.

Toups looked up to her sister and wanted to be like her. "She had the drive and the determination you rarely see in anyone," Toups said, "and I wanted to be like that."

As a result, UK was at the top of Toups' list because Kristy had been a gymnast there. But Katie almost decided against it because she wanted her own identity. In the end, she realized it would be more of an asset than a hindrance.

Katie Toups
Toups quickly made a name for herself at UK. She finished third on the team in the all-around as a freshman, scoring a career-high 39.000 that year. At the NCAA Southeast Region Championships, she scored a career-high 9.825 on the floor exercise.

"Katie is definitely an overachiever," Muhammad said. "She works hard and has overcome so much. She has shown great strides in leadership ability."

For the 2000 season, the Southern trio added a fourth classmate, this one from the North. Allen joined the GymKats after spending a year at State University of New York College at Brockport. The Bowmansville, N.Y., native stayed close to home her freshman season but wanted to make the move from Division III to Division I.

After following her sister Dana into gymnastics as a youngster, Allen blossomed and enrolled at Brockport. There she dominated, setting school records on all four apparatus and in the all-around, records which she still holds. Also as a freshman, Allen was a three-time All-American and the 1999 Division III Uneven Bars Champion. But she wanted more.

"I really wanted to challenge myself," Allen said. "I wanted to make sure that I did not regret settling for being the best at the DIII level. I needed to push myself further, athletically and academically, and UK helped me do that in so many ways."

Nicole Allen
Allen walked on at UK her sophomore season and provided much-needed depth on the bars, beam and floor. She performed so well for the team that she earned a scholarship for her junior season.

"When Nicole puts her mind to something, she can achieve it," Muhammad said. "Her decision to come here was a tough one, but in her decision she knew that she would have to work hard to make the lineup. She put her mind to it and has competed on three events for us."

As juniors in 2001, the quartet helped lead UK to new heights in a season that would change the face of UK gymnastics. The GymKats nearly defeated national-power Alabama in Tuscaloosa, missing the win by just 0.075 points. They tied the school-record for team total at home against Illinois with a 195.875 and scored the second-highest total in school history twice. They scored a 195.850 at the SEC Championships, their highest team total in SEC action. They also finished fourth at the 2001 NCAA Central Region Championships with a 195.150, missing the first trip in school history as a team to the NCAA Championships by a mere 0.800 points.

Allen broke out to set career-highs on the bars, beam and floor, which included a 9.850 on the beam and the floor. Lemp moved back into the beam lineup and finished the year leading the team on bars while she was second on the vault. Simmons competed in the all-around in seven of UK's 12 meets and led the team on vault. She scored a career high on floor with a 9.850, and then at regionals she tied for fifth on the vault. Toups continued to contribute on the vault and the bars. She was third on the team on bars, and at the SEC Championships she scored a career-high 9.800 on the vault and a season-high 9.850 on the bars.

With their senior years approaching, these GymKats were ready to move onward and upward. However, even before the first meet, Simmons went down with another injury.

This time during practice, a dismount resulted in a torn ACL and MCL in Simmons' left knee, an injury that would end her competitive career.

"This, obviously, is not how I pictured my senior year," Simmons said. "It's so hard for me to sit out another season and not compete. I love competing! It's not just for myself, but it's for my team, my parents and my coaches. They have been so patient with me. I am so thankful and lucky to have such wonderful people surrounding me."

The team moved on but was dealt another blow after the first meet when Toups tore the ACL in her right knee during practice.

"I couldn't wait to compete this season. I remember talking about that fact with teammates last semester," Toups said. "I was working on a new vault and couldn't wait to put it on the competition floor. The hardest thing is staying positive, but the support I am getting from my team is great."

And the support Toups and Simmons are giving their team is tremendous. All season, they have been fixtures on the sidelines as the team's loudest cheerleaders.

As a result, the GymKats have continued on. Allen and Lemp are key contributors as seniors, giving their all in working toward the NCAA Championships. Allen is a staple in the bars and floor lineups and is ranked sixth on the team on bars and fifth on floor. A staple on the bars and beam, Lemp is second on the team on both and is ranked sixth in the Central Region and seventh in the SEC on bars. Earlier this year, she scored a career-high 9.925 on the bars.

The GymKats are ranked 18th in the nation and third in the Central Region. Their ranking has them in position to earn their first NCAA regional seeding and a legitimate shot at advancing to the NCAA Championships as a team for the first time. They have already topped the school-record team total twice. A 196.100 against Ball State on Feb. 15 broke the old record of 195.875, and they reset it again with a 196.375 against Texas Woman's University on March 15.

As they strive toward history, these seniors do so as the epitome of the term student-athlete. Each will graduate from UK, and they will do so with a number of accolades on their r?sum?s.

Allen, Lemp and Toups are three-time Academic All-Americans, two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selections and regular members of the Dean's List. Along with that, they each have served this community well by donating their time and energy to various outreach programs. As a result, each was inducted into the prestigious UK Society of Character.

Lemp will attend medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston this fall. Upon graduation, Allen looks to attend medical school in New York, while Toups will study to become a physician's assistant. Simmons is still mulling over her options but plans to return to Texas to put her degree to work.

Along with the book knowledge they acquired, they learned more as well.

"In my time here, the most important thing I have learned is that people are diverse and it takes a bigger person to respect other's differences," Allen said.

Simmons added, "Whether you like it or not, you will be around people who differ from you. But I loved getting to know so many people, especially my team."

To sum it up, Toups said, "It is important to be a team player. It is so much easier to accomplish things when you have people you can fall back on."

When all is said and done, these GymKats will be able to look back and see that it was part of something special. They made a difference on and off the mats. They helped bring UK gymnastics to new heights.

"As Mo likes to say, 'Once you start making excuses, you lose control of the situation'," Allen said.

This class never made excuses and will reap the benefits for the rest of their lives.