On a cold night in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Leah Little stood with her team as they were about to begin the fourth rotation against the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. The GymKats had just taken a 0.075-point lead and Little was preparing her squad for the possibility of defeating a powerhouse.
UK came out of the balance beam rotation with a school-record score of 49.350, but Little had to break the news that Bama had scored even better on floor to pull out a 0.075-point win.
"That was the best performance by any team I've ever coached," Little said. "I'm so impressed with our performance. Moving to balance beam last, our team really held together and shined. I couldn't be more proud of these gymnasts."
At the 2001 SEC Championships, the same squad needed a 195.500 to surpass Michigan State for the final qualifying spot in the NCAA Central Region Championships. Kentucky scored a 195.850, the second-highest score in school history, to not only overtake MSU for fifth place in the region but also make it mathematically impossible for the Spartans to move back ahead of UK.
Those GymKats showed their mettle. They showed their resolve. They showed they were contenders.
When she began the UK program 26 years ago, Leah Little had a feeling the program would evolve into one of the top programs in the nation. With a fourth-place finish at regionals, missing a berth to the NCAA Championships by 0.800 points, and a No. 16 final ranking, Little and the GymKats are on the verge of greatness.
Little's 26-year tenure as head coach of the UK gymnastics team holds a myriad of memories, from a time when Little struggled with the club-level program which operated out of a small gym in the student recreation center on campus to an arena in Corvallis, Ore., in 1993, where a young, freshman phenom named Jenny Hansen climbed atop a podium to receive her first national title.
One constant has remained throughout the years. Leah Little loves Kentucky gymnastics, she lives Kentucky gymnastics, she IS Kentucky gymnastics.
You can see it in the way her eyes light up when she speaks of the early years in the program.
You can feel the emotion in her voice when she tells you of her vision for this Kentucky team.
They will be contenders.
The pride and excitement Little exudes is almost contagious. The most defining characteristic of Leah Little is her unselfish attitude. Little doesn't want awards and accolades for all she has accomplished at Kentucky. What Little really wants is to put 17 gymnasts on a plane to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April to compete for the first time as a team in the NCAA Championships.
Little begins her 27th year as the head coach of the Kentucky gymnastics program. The first and only head coach at Kentucky, Little has taken the program from a club sport to varsity status since her arrival at Kentucky in 1974. Building from the bottom up, Little has developed her program into a top-25 competitor year after year.
For three consecutive years, Little's program produced an NCAA National Champion in Hansen, who surprised everyone by winning the 1993 NCAA All-Around title as a freshman, the first of eight NCAA crowns Hansen would capture. In 1996, Little produced UK's second All-American -- Robin Ewing. To her credit, she has helped develop two consecutive SEC Freshmen of the Year. Kristen Hoeferlin received the honor in 1997, while Ashley Burkholder was recognized in 1998. Then, only two short seasons later, Julia Gore gave Little her fourth freshman honoree.
Little's coaching achievements have earned her national recognition during her career at Kentucky. She was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 1988 and again in 1996. Little also was named 1996 NCAA Southeast Regional Coach of the Year.
Little's involvement in women's gymnastics does not stop with coaching. She is a former member of the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Committee, a member of the United States Elite Coaches Association and a past president of the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women. Little also served for 10 years as NCAA Southeast Regional Chairperson for gymnastics.
A native of Lexington and a former collegiate gymnast at Eastern Kentucky University, Little began her coaching career as program director of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Lexington. She held that position until joining UK.
Little enjoyed great success competing at the high school and collegiate levels. At Tates Creek High School, she helped lead her team to five state championships while capturing an individual state championship. She also is a member of the Tates Creek Hall of Fame. At Eastern Kentucky, Little captured the AIAW regional title and was a national qualifier.
Little resides in Lexington and has two daughters, Brooke, 21, and Kami, 15, and one granddaughter, Loren, 1.
Little's Most Memorable Moments
On UK's first national ranking: "Jackie Chatfield was our first nationally ranked gymnast. The Top 20 ranking was huge. We worked real hard to get there."
On the Nutter Field House: "The building of Nutter helped recruiting. We could not train at the level we needed to compete against the top schools in the facility we had. The new gym is a huge recruiting tool, and I give C.M. Newton all the credit for making that commitment."
On Jenny Hansen: "Jenny was the Michael Jordan of gymnastics. She was that type of athlete. It isn't really something you train. For the first time we gained national and local media attention and fan support. And to win three national championships, that is a record I don't think will ever be broken."
On Robin Ewing: "She knew how to compete and set a great example in the gym with her work ethic. The other gymnasts looked up to her and knew what they had to do."
On the school's first top 5 national ranking in 1998: "Our goals are to compete at nationals, to win a championship and to be ranked in the Top 10. We expect every year to be in the Top 10."
On performing in Memorial Coliseum for the first time: "To be in Memorial Coliseum and to realize the program had gone to that level was amazing. Growing up in Lexington and seeing UK sports, it amazed me that I could ever be standing on the same floor that Adolph Rupp coached on. It was a great achievement for me."