Amari Celestine: “We feel like we earned that spot just as much as anybody else.”

By Ashlee Buhler 

From the moment the team got on the bus to head over to Valvano Arena for the regional finals in Raleigh, Amari Celestine just knew it was Missouri’s day. The Tigers advancing to the NCAA Championships wasn’t the outcome most people had on their bracket, in fact it has only happened once before in program history, but Celestine and her team were determined to make it happen, not letting anything stand in their way–-not even some of the strongest teams in the nation. 

The Raleigh regional was considered by many to be the toughest of the four, with a slew of talented teams all capable of advancing on any given day. Among the most competitive teams were the reigning NCAA Champions, the Michigan wolverines; the LSU Tigers, who are always postseason favorites for a national title; the UCLA Bruins, who have one of the most star studded rosters in all of collegiate gymnastics; and the Iowa Hawkeyes, who won the regular season Big 10 title for the first time ever just last year. Then there’s the Missouri Tigers, a team on the rise, but often overshadowed in the highly competitive SEC conference. 

However, it’s been a season for the record books for the Tigers; one that affirmed just how good they actually are. In the regular season, the Tigers grabbed their first win ever at Georgia, topped LSU and Arkansas in a tri meet, and came just over a tenth away from beating Florida with a program record score (197.650). The Tigers success continued from the afternoon session at the SEC Championships where they finished fourth—their highest finish in history—and came into regionals ranked No. 11 in the nation. 

Amari Celestine was the one who closed out the meet on floor in the regional finals, sealing the deal for the Tigers and punching their ticket to Fort Worth for the NCAA Championships. As just a freshman she has the confidence and composure of a seasoned veteran, coming in clutch for her team when it matters most. Being the anchor on floor comes with a certain level of pressure, but it’s a position she yearned for as a young gymnast and is now thriving in during her freshman season. In just a few months, Celestine has come to view her Mizzou team as family, and she wants to help lift them to victory any chance she gets. 

In Raleigh, she certainly did that. 

Inside Gymnastics sat down with Amari Celestine to discuss Mizzou’s qualification to NCAA’s, being the underdog team, and her future goals.


 

You just helped your team qualify to the NCAA Championships for the second time in program history! Has it sunk in yet?

Honestly, no! It still feels so surreal. I don’t know how to explain it, but I went into the meet expecting us to make it, just because I like to have that positive expectation for myself before I go into a competition. But when it happened and we found out, I had so many emotions rushing through my body I couldn’t even process it at the time. 

It was a very close battle, you needed a 9.925 for your team to advance. Did you have any idea how close it was? 

No, I just knew that I needed a big score! 

Walk me through the moment you guys looked at the scoreboard and realized you did it! 

I was by Shannon (Welker) in the very back of the group, so I’m in none of the pictures because I went to the very back after I gave my high fives [laughs]. So I was standing by Shannon, Casey Jo (MacPherson), and John (Carney), and as soon as that score hit, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t believe we just beat out UCLA and we’re going to nationals!’  We jumped so high, it looked like we were levitating in the pictures! I started crying immediately. I was like whaling on Casey Jo and bawling my eyes out. I just couldn’t believe it! 

As a team, was this the expectation you set for yourselves? 

It was, actually. We like to listen to music right before the meet and we had started listening to our music on the bus, so we were getting hype before we even got to the arena. The whole team had the expectation of going to nationals and we knew we had worked so hard for it all season; we feel like we earned that spot just as much as anybody else. We busted our butts for it so we walked into the meet expecting to go. 

What kinds of conversations has the team had since regionals to make sure you’re prepared and where you need to be mentally heading into NCAAs.  

As a team we’ve all said at this point, ‘we have nothing to lose.’ All we can do is put all of our heart out on that floor. We have nothing else to lose other than a championship. So when it comes to a championship title, we just have to put our hearts out on the floor and make it happen. Shannon has been preaching about getting 1% better all season long so, bent knees? Straighten them. Flexed feet? Point them. The little things we’re being very nit picky with ourselves before we go in there, so we can do what we need to do and put out what we do in practice on the real floor. We want to copy and paste it. 

You guys are kind of the underdogs but have been really great this season and have beat some of the best teams in the nation. What message do you think that sends about Mizzou gymnastics? 

I was actually talking about that during the preseason. We were talking about our championship structure and basically, what we need to do in order to become top eight in our country. I was saying people don’t really see us… they don’t really think about us, but honestly, I thought it was a good thing because it kind of allowed us the opportunity to sneak in there. People weren’t thinking we were going to go in and be able to do it, but we did. People definitely didn’t think we were going to be a tenth away from Florida, but we were. I feel like being the underdogs kind of allows us to have that stealthiness in order to get ahead of other teams, because they all probably went in thinking they could beat us. I feel like we’re just making the statement that we’re here! We’re busting our butts just like you guys are and we’re just as good. 

It’s been an incredible freshman season for you… I’m curious to know what your goals were coming in and if you feel like you’ve met those goals… or maybe even exceeded them? 

I feel like I met a lot of goals and even exceeded some. I still have some goals that I want to accomplish like I wanted to get a 10 this year really badly. I have one more opportunity to do it and I’ve been super close already, so I’m very hopeful and keeping my fingers crossed for this last meet. I did want to anchor an event, that was probably my biggest thing, because in club I was always last. My coach always told me the anchor spot is a really important spot because your team relies on you. I don’t know what it was about the conversation we had, but I knew I wanted that. So I’m very grateful that it’s floor because I love floor. My other goal I’ve set for myself is I want a national title. On which event—I’m not sure yet—but I know I’m capable of making that happen, I just need to put forth the effort and make sure I fix those small minor details I’m focusing on constantly. I came in with big expectations! I also want my team to be in the top four and win the NCAA Championships. I know we can do that, there’s no doubt in my mind, so I want all of it! Oh and I love Trinity Thomas! I want to be just like her when I grow up. With all of her excellence… I strive to be like her. She makes me want to work hard! 

Do you like being in a conference where there’s so many incredible gymnasts and it’s very competitive? 

I do! I’m a competitive person. Especially in the sport of gymnastics, I feel like we’re all pretty competitive. But I’m from California, so all of my teammates stayed in the Pac 12 area. There was something about the SEC that I was like, ‘I like the challenge.’ There’s so many good teams in this conference, I don’t want a win to be easy or by default, I want us to bust our butts to try and beat the other team. So if we lose this year, best believe we’re going to bust our butts to beat you next year. I like that! 

What made Missouri feel like home for you? 

It sounds cheesy, but as soon as I landed here, I don’t know what it was, but Casey Jo picked my mom and I up from the airport, and I was wowed from the get go. It was such an amazing experience for me. It was also my first trip and all of the coaches wowed me. I felt a connection with all of them and I met them all at different times… What I was looking for in a team was that family aspect, that was all. I felt like in club it was hard for me to get that because we’re all trying to beat each other, but in the NCAA we’re a family and we’re here to lift each other up to beat other teams. I could see that naturally. It wasn’t forced, they weren’t putting on a show for me, I could see this is how they really are, and I just loved that. The practices aren’t like, ‘I have to go to practice,’ it’s ‘I get to go to practice’ because they make them fun and we work hard at the same time. 

That family aspect is a very important thing to have, especially when you’re so far from home! 

I haven’t felt homesick at all! I was surprised because my family and I are really close. I’m the oldest of my siblings and I miss them, but I thought I would be crying every night as soon as I got dropped off, but my teammates made me feel so welcome. We’re all in the same situation, we’re all away from our families. So I feel like it was the best possible choice I could have ever made.

Photos by Hunter Dyke

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