Texas Woman’s University gymnasts fight adversity as they eye national championships

Texas Woman’s University gymnasts fight adversity as they eye national championships

DENTON – With laser focus and no show of fear, Alix Pierce, 22, a gymnast at Texas Woman’s University, begins her routine on bars. It slides from the low bar to the high bar. Her teammates shout words of encouragement. It flies off the bar in a few twists and turns and sticks to the landing.

The TWU gymnastics team is perfecting its routines for the upcoming USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Championships in Denton, April 6-8.

“We’ll be hosting the top eight teams in USA Gymnastics along with the top individuals in each event, as well,” said Morgan Lair, TWU’s assistant athletic director for communications.

Gymnast Alix Pierce flies through the air on bars during a practice at Texas Woman’s University Tuesday, March 28, 2023 in Denton. (Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

The championship, which will be held at Kitty Magee Arena on TWU’s campus, will feature Division I, II and III schools that offer fewer than eight full scholarships per team, said Rachel Duke, USA Communications coordinator. Gymnastics.

The Texas Woman’s University Pioneers are ranked as this year’s second seed, with Lindenwood University in Saint Charles, Mo., in first.

The Texas gymnastics team is made up of young women who have battled misconceptions about the sport, dealt with stubborn injuries and yet stayed true to their efforts to become better gymnasts, they and their coach say.

Related: Texas is a US hotbed for gymnastics, but doesn’t offer the DI sport in college. Experts predict championships if that changes.

Alix Pierce and Kyla Podges, 22, have struggled with their own struggles. They and their coach say they never let their challenges end their careers as gymnasts, and now, as they finish their final season at TWU, they’re proud that they persevered.

The Pioneers took home their 12th national championship last year and they look to win their 13th on their home floor.

Radiating positivity

During training, Podges enters the gym with an eager smile, waving to her teammates and trainers. Her positivity radiates as she prepares to start training.

“Never once, never for a second, did she feel sorry for herself,” said Lisa Bowerman, head coach of TWU’s gymnastics team. “She just kicks ass and gives everything she has to everything she does and to every person around her.”

After being adopted from China, Podges started gymnastics at 18 months old as a way to help her with her underdeveloped motor skills. Gymnastics is her safe haven and has been since her parents’ divorce when she was 7 years old.

Gymnast Kyla Podges warms up during a practice at Texas Woman’s University Tuesday, March 28, 2023, in Denton. (Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

By the time she reached high school in Lexington, Ky., Podges was competing at level 10 — the highest level a gymnast can reach before college. But it was during these four years that she began to develop a disturbing relationship with gymnastics.

Injury after injury became increasingly frustrating. The pressures of stunning recruiters and receiving college scholarship offers took their toll. “My love for the sport honestly wasn’t there,” she said. She was worried about the cost of education and the financial burden it might be on her parents.

Podges’ teammate had just signed with TWU, a Division II school that Podges hadn’t yet considered. Her dream had previously been to sign with a Division I university, but as time went on, she explored other options.

She contacted TWU and received interest from coaches. Her official campus visit made her realize that the school of her dreams was in Denton. “I didn’t realize that Division II athletes … could compete at that level,” she said.

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Podges started her freshman year with a new love for the sport. She was starting out as an all-around gymnast, meaning she would be able to compete on bars, beam, floor and vault.

Two months into TWU’s preseason, she tore her ACL, forcing her to sit out her entire freshman season. Eight months later, in 2020, she returned home for physical rehabilitation, but COVID-19 made recovery difficult.

Podges spent most of her recovery at home in Kentucky. She had two physical trainers – one from TWU in Denton and the other from Kentucky. Her surgeon was in Ohio. Those long distances made communication difficult.

Less than a year later, she suffered another ACL tear after attempting a leg curl. The time he spent in rehabilitation did not prevent him from being part of the team. Podges found her voice and learned how to use it to encourage her teammates.

“It wasn’t for me anymore. It was about the team,” she said.

Podges was a member of the TWU team that won the national championship in 2022.

From Saskatoon to Texas

Like Podges, Pierce began her journey as a gymnast at a young age – 3 or 4 years old. Her parents enrolled her in a gymnastics class as a way to keep Pierce busy and active.

She began to reevaluate her love for the sport after several injuries during high school. “I strained a bunch of muscles in my neck because I fell on my head my sophomore year,” Pierce said.

With each injury, the recovery process felt harder and longer, but Pierce looked to her mother for guidance and reassurance.

Pierce was part of the Seattle Pacific University gymnastics team as a walk-on her freshman year. The university offered Pierce a full scholarship starting her sophomore year. It was a dream come true. But before her sophomore year, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and she was stuck inside her parents’ basement in her hometown of Saskatoon in Canada.

To her surprise, the coaching staff called for a team meeting over Zoom. The head coach made a shocking announcement about the end of the gymnastics program.

The university committed to keeping team members, including Pierce, on scholarship if they decided to stay. But at that point, Pierce had only competed at the college level for one year. She was not ready to give up the sport.

Pierce’s coach at Seattle, who had a close relationship with Bowerman, put Pierce on TWU’s radar.

Now, as a senior, Pierce looks back on her accomplishments at TWU. She was initially apprehensive about moving to Texas as an openly queer woman, but her decision to take a chance on Denton paid off, she said.

Gymnast Alix Pierce smiles with her teammates as they break away from a huddle during practice at Texas Woman’s University Tuesday, March 28, 2023 in Denton. (Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

She is looking forward to an additional national title for her TWU team as they prepare for their competition next week. Pierce hopes to win an individual title as well.

More than meets the eye

Gymnastics can sometimes be seen as a women’s sport, Pierce said, but the team’s training consists of more than just “dance moves.”

People may “believe that all these gymnasts have to be tall and lean and, frankly, very thin and toned,” Podges said. “I am very built. I am very physical. I am a very strong gymnast.”

Gymnast Kyla Podges spins while practicing a floor routine at Texas Women’s University Tuesday, March 28, 2023 in Denton. (Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

In addition to the artistry seen in gymnastics, an important part of the sport involves mental toughness and grueling training, Podges said.

This is especially true as they prepare for the upcoming national championships. “I have no doubt that what we do now, in these moments before nationals, will pay off when we get there,” said Podges.

Event information

The USA Gymnastics Women’s National Championships will take place in Denton, April 6-8. Tickets can be purchased at twuathletics.com.

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