Time to Shine Together, Alyona Shchennikova looks to a 5th year with her LSU family

Time to Shine Together, Alyona Shchennikova looks to a 5th year with her LSU family

By Christy Sandmaier

“Alyona has had a great fall. She is more confident, physically stronger and the most mature she’s ever been with us. Having her return for her 5th year was a tremendous lift for us.” Jay Clark

The Climb. Mac and Cheese. Back for More. Get There.

On the heels of LSU’s season theme Get There, Alyona Shchennikova is ready for her best gymnastics ever. It’s part of the reason she’s back for a fifth year. The other part, of course, is to take the Tigers to the National title as a family. It’s a dream she’s been chasing since landing on campus for the legendary purple and gold and has one last shot to fulfill. And for Shchennikova the dream is part drive and determination with a little bit of fate added in.

For an athlete who rose through the Elite ranks and now describes herself as “so different” from that freshman who first stepped foot in Baton Rouge five years ago, Shchennikova has taken her fun-loving personality to the floor for the Tigers each season and taken each moment as a lesson learned and a place to grow as a person and student-athlete. Clawing their way through a season surrounded by injuries and setbacks in 2023 and climbing to fourth at the National Championship, Shchennikova’s perspective and humor was just what the Tigers needed last season.

“Last year, I kind of got known for saying it takes longer to make mac and cheese than it does to do a bar routine, a floor routine, or any routine,” Shchennikova said. “I think that makes me calm. It just makes me realize that we’ve done the preparation beforehand. Our routine is 30 seconds long, and mac and cheese takes three minutes to cook. By the time the mac and cheese is over, we can do, like, five routines! That’s how fast life goes by. So as much as we want to enjoy it, it’s over in 10 seconds. Enjoy as much as that 10 seconds as you want!”

Looking forward, she’s embracing this fifth year wholeheartedly and said in the end it really wasn’t a decision to take it, it was more meant to be.

“I feel like I just always knew once they said you can take a fifth year that I was going to do it,” Shchennikova said. “I think there was just one moment where I thought I could end and be happy right now, and that was after Nationals last year. But then I looked at (assistant coach/recruiting coordinator) Garrett (Griffeth) and he said, “But what if we win?” And I was like, “You’re right. I have to come back now!”

Chatting with Shchennikova, she’s ready to put 2023 behind her and look forward to every moment of her final year as a student-athlete. She loves her teammates and is so grateful to have worked with the incredible coaching staff that have led the program during her time as a Tiger. Still, it’s impossible to tell this year’s story without looking back just a little.

2023 saw the Tigers overcome incredible adversity, including the loss of stars Kiya Johnson early in the season and Kai Rivers in early March, to make it back to the NCAA Championships. The injuries left the Tigers reeling but determined to continue their climb to the top. With the help of some huge scores from star Haleigh Bryant at the Denver Regional and the entire team rising to the occasion to ensure the Tigers didn’t count a score below 9.850 on any event, LSU edged out the Michigan Wolverines and advanced to the NCAA Championships by winning the tie-breaker (all scores counted) in one of the most dramatic Regional competitions we’ve ever seen. 

It’s something Shchennikova credits to a total team effort from start to finish, even on the toughest days when everything seemed impossible. Mentally, seeing her teammates go down took a toll she said, but the growth they all experienced as people and as student-athletes strengthened their bond and their resolve to keep climbing forward.

“I think even from the very beginning, collectively, as a group, we had the same goal in mind and all wanted to get to the same place,” Shchennikova said. “We knew that no matter what, we wanted to do it for each other. Even when someone would go down, and I think Kiya said it first, because when she first went down, we were so distraught, so in disbelief. She was the one who said, ‘Guys, I’m not dying. I just got hurt. You guys can do it. I’ll be there doing the gymnastics just as much as you guys will be doing the gymnastics!’”

When she said that, I thought, ‘She’s right. Me doing this routine is just as much her doing it with me.’ Every time before beam, I would salute her and we would lock eyes and she’d be like, ‘I love you.’ And I’m like, “I love you, too.’ I felt like she was doing the routine with me. I just felt very calm. But I feel like that’s how everyone felt, like it was a collective. If one person was doing a routine, it was all 20 of us doing that routine with them.”

With the chalk dust settled on 2023, this season the Tigers once again have something to prove. Ranked No.3 behind the defending champion Oklahoma Sooners and 2023 national runner-up Florida in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association (WCGA) Preseason Coaches Poll, announced by the organization on December 8, LSU’s schedule includes 11 meets in the regular season; six at home and five on the road. They’ll officially launch 2024 on January 5 in the PMAC against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

“Our 2024 schedule is very strong and it’s a schedule that’s manageable as it alternates home and away and spaces out nicely for our fans to be able to come to all of our meets,” head coach Jay Clark said. “We open against a Big Ten opponent as we welcome Ohio State to the PMAC. They are a program who have been up-and-coming over the last several years and have done really well.”

Ready to help lead her team together one last time, Shchennikova is only focusing on the here and now. And she likes what she sees.

“Our team is looking pretty good,” she said. “We’re looking a little hot, so I’m excited to see what we’re going to do! We can put up like, almost two lineups, so it’s going to be fun and exciting!”

And stacked.

Joining Shchennikova for their fifth year are Kiya Johnson and Rivers. Cammy Hall, a sixth-year transfer from Utah in 2022 is also back from injury. Seniors Bryant, Sierra Ballard, Chase Brock, Elena Arenas, and Olivia Dunne will all be looking to make their statements while juniors Aleah Finnegan, who recently qualified for the 2024 Olympics for the Philippines, Tori Tatum and KJ Johnson will once again be key to the Tiger lineups. Exciting additions to this year’s roster also include two transfers in Savannah Schoenherr (Florida) and Jillian Hoffman (Utah) and freshmen Konnor McClain, Amari Drayton, Kylie Coen and Leah Miller.

They’re going to be an incredibly fun group to watch and follow this year for sure with a perfect blend of athleticism and showmanship ready to take center stage and challenge for the National crown. Getting there (and staying healthy) is going to be the tough part and undoubtedly also the fun part. And for Shchennikova, every moment will be worth it. She likes this year’s theme – which she credits to Drayton – and has already seen it at work. 

We kind of started saying it a lot and then the intrasquad happened, and we were like, ‘Okay, guys, we’ve got to get there. If we get there, we can take it. It’ll be good.’ We can relate to each other about it and we all had that moment – it was kind of the same feeling that we had when we came up with The Climb. It related to every single one of us in a different aspect, but also in the same way.” 

On Saturday in the PMAC, we’ll get our first official look at the Tigers at Gymnastics 101. Even with the pressure and early season expectations, Shchennikova is ready to get there and get at it. They’ve put in the work and they’re ready to go.

“It’s a friendly competition, but if you make a lineup here, I feel as if – personally, I’m biased – but I think our team is the best in the country,” she said. “So if you make a lineup between all of us and you compete there, then it’s hard not to think that we’re going to win everything.”

Every year I’ve been challenged in a different aspect. Junior year, I would say physically, and then last year I would say mentally, but overall, I have realized that I can come out of college knowing that I’ll be able to survive anything that comes my way. And as my college career comes to an end, I feel like it’s mentally prepared me to get out in the real world. They say the environment really makes a person, and I think LSU has made me who I am.”

We chatted with Alyona last week and here’s more of the conversation as LSU heads into Gymnastics 101. How to Watch – Click Here!

Your team experienced anything and everything that you could have possibly imagined in 2023. Have you been able to put that journey into perspective – the emotions, facing setback after setback, and then writing those incredible headlines all the way to the final four on the floor?

I think last year was probably one of the hardest years I went through mentally, but it was so rewarding in the end. Watching your friends go down one at a time – and not only were they my friends, they were my classmates, they were my roommates – was something that was so hard for me to watch. I think by the time Kai went down, my jaw just dropped. Mentally I was like, ‘I don’t know how much I can get through this if I can’t do it with them.’ We always talked about senior year and how we’re going to get through it together. And then the last meet was senior night, and I was the only senior competing out of my class. I didn’t feel right. Yes, senior night was such a great night, but I knew I wanted to do it again next year, and for them I said, ‘I want to do it with you all by my side.’

You created these storybook moments winning the tie-breaker at Regionals, taking the first spot in your Semi-Final and heading to the National Championship final. Did it start to feel like fate after a while?

We worked so hard that it just felt meant to be. We were in the gym pushing every day. Something good had to come out of it. And it did. I remember when we finally made Final Four, I was so grateful just to be there for the opportunity! Of course, we’re always going to want to win and everything, but I think it just meant so much more for our group just to even get there, especially with the year that we had before without even making it to the second day of Regionals. I was just grateful for any opportunity I could have.

Going into your fifth year, how did it feel to be able to reset with a clean slate and focus on going forward?

I remember when the semester first started, I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to talk a lot about last year.’ That was last year, that was such a great moment, but now this is like … I don’t want to say it’s like my final hurrah, but it’s like a victory lap. Every time I come into the gym, I just want to be happy to be here. It kind of gets me teary-eyed knowing that. It’s teary eyed, but it’s also happy because I did get the opportunity to do it again, and a lot of people haven’t had that.

It’s been so exciting to watch all of you who have had the opportunity to take your fifth or even sixth year really come into your own as athletes and as people because you’ve gone through so much. As far as leadership skills, how do you feel you’ve grown and what will you really hone in on this season?

We always say that we have no captains on this team. So everyone is welcome to lead on this team, even if you’re a freshman or sophomore. But I think this year I have really felt like I can guide the underclassmen a little bit more.  I’ve been here for a lot of years, so I have a little bit more knowledge. But the thing is, I learned from them, too. And even Sav (Savannah Schoenherr), she’s a 6th year – I’ve gained a lot from her. I feel you’re always going to be learning from different people, and I think that’s what’s cool about being here. That’s something I’m going to take with me in the future as a leadership skill – you’re never not learning, you’re never going to be done learning. There’s always going to be something that someone says or does where you’re going to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I could use that!’ 

The picture that you painted for yourself as an Elite heading into NCAA gymnastics, how does it compare? 

I’m so different. But I do compare my Elite experience to college because we have so many Elite girls here. So we’ve had Aleah and Konnor, and we’ve all trained together since we were  8-years-old. No matter how bad a day might feel, sometimes I’m just grateful to have a team behind me! When I was doing Elite gymnastics, I was practicing by myself and it was really hard to stay motivated the entire time. Just because when you’re doing it on your own in the gym, it’s hard to motivate yourself. Here I have people motivating me. They’re doing the gymnastics with me, and if they’re struggling, I’m struggling. It’s really nice to have a team behind you that is going through the same thing as you. And that they understand.

I can tell, I mean, just that sense of they’re not just your teammates and friends, but they’re really family to you.

Yes, most definitely! I’ve definitely gained like 25 sisters since being here, and I’m truly probably going to be in touch with them for the rest of my life.

You’ve had such an experienced coaching team around you at LSU. What do you think that they have taught you and what are the best things that they’ve brought out in you since you’ve been there?

I love our coaching staff! We’ve kind of had a little bit of a different coaching staff almost every year I’ve been here. And so I started out with D-D (Breaux) being my head coach, and I loved her so much. She was so cool. I’m really glad I got to experience working with her, even if it was just for a year. But I’ve always been really close to Jay. He was the one that recruited me. He was the one that I called and said, ‘I would really love to come to LSU.’ He’s definitely been a father figure for me since being here. There’s days where we even joke about it. My dad was my coach (in Elite gymnastics), and I called him Papa. So every time I need a spot or something or saying thank you, I say, ‘Thanks, Papa’ to Jay! It’s really nice having that kind of bond with a coach, because not a lot of people get that. Knowing that we have that bond, I feel like it’s easier to do gymnastics because he believes in me. I need someone to believe in me just as much as I do.

Garrett and (assistant coach) Courtney (McCool Griffeth), I’ve loved them since they got here. Courtney’s kind of like a stern coach, and she’s been through the Elite world, too, so we bond over that moment because we know how hard it is to be an Elite gymnast and then transition to college. It’s really nice that she has that experience I can relate to. And then Garrett’s … he’s just like, “G Money” (laughs). He makes vault really fun. Sometimes I try not to take gymnastics so seriously, and I feel like he is really good with that with me on the end of the vault table. We’ll do little jokes before I compete. He always has a joke for me and then we’ll vault. We have a cool little handshake. I really love Bugs (assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat) because she was a college gymnast, and every time I get nervous, she just gets it. She always knows the right things to say. She knows the right things to do. She’s like, ‘All right, let’s take a step back. What do we need to do?’ She’s always one step ahead of me than I realize. I really respect her as a coach.

What’s the team chemistry like so far this year? You’ve got a great freshman class and key transfers…

I know! Even though they’re new, I feel like they’ve been here forever. We all just bonded so fast! I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s the energy, I don’t know if it’s the culture, but it’s fun always having new people come in because we bond so quickly! At our team retreat, we all shared our stories. We all bonded and I love having them here. And especially Sav because she’s a 6th year and she has a little bit more knowledge than all of us. So she has great things to say. She always comes in with little positive quotes and it’s a good perspective to have.

You’ve got Gymnastics 101 coming up soon! What are you all looking for and how are you pacing this season? 

So we do have a lot of people – we have a lot of bodies for once, which is nice! But I think with Gym 101, we just want to get as many people out there just to put ourselves in that competition setting again and competition equipment and the hard landings. So for that, and I don’t want to speak for the coaches, but I feel like they’re going to put a little bit more than six up just so we can have more experience on the floor. There’s a lot of people that are working All-Around, but it’s going to be nice to pick people out of the lineups kind of, because Haleigh, Aleah and I kind of did All-Around all of last year. And by the time we got to Nationals, we were having fun, but it would have been nice to have a little bit of a break in between just for one meet! With our team this year and how many bodies we have, I think we can do awesome!

So I’ve always wanted to ask, when Jay is pointing towards the ceiling on your bar dismount, do you see that? And if he wasn’t doing that, would that just completely throw you all off?

I don’t know if I see it. I think I see my toes! Well, I try to see my toes more, but I have to see him. Like, I have to have him next to me because I’m a little bit like every gymnast – we all have mental blocks. We all have something mentally with gymnastics, and my small mental block is my bar dismount. I have to have him stand there for every single dismount I have. If he’s not standing there at practice – I think I’ve maybe gone like once without him standing there. And it was like such a shock to him. He was like, ‘Oh, so you can do without me standing there?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I will never, ever do that again!’ As far as his hand being there, I don’t think I see his hand, I just like, let go and let God and hope for the best!

It’s such a trademark move! 

I’ve seen him do it for other people on the team, or I see him do it in my videos, but I think so much is happening so fast that I actually just never can see him, I almost black out. I don’t really remember what’s going on!

So this might be a bit of an emotional question, but whenever your final routine is this season, and hopefully it’s that final four on the floor on your way to a National Championship, what does the ultimate success look like for you at the end of the day? What are you going to remember most about LSU gymnastics ten years from now, 20 years from now?

I’ve actually thought about this before … that final routine. I want to land it and know that I did everything I could for the team, for myself, and just have no regrets. And if I feel that way at the end of my routine, I’ll be happy no matter what the outcome is. I’ll probably throw the L’s up to the crowd because I love doing that. I’ll probably start tearing up, but it’s something that I’ll cherish forever.

Photo credits LSU Athletics

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