On the Rise | Minnesota Golden Gophers
By Ashlee Buhler
There are a handful of NCAA gymnastics programs who consistently appear toward the top of the national rankings year after year, week after week. They win conference titles, break records, and are almost always guaranteed to be down on the floor at the end of the season, fighting for a spot in the NCAA finals for a chance to bring home that coveted trophy.
Minnesota is slowly but surely becoming that team. And they want to keep it that way.
The rise of the Minnesota Golden Gophers the last few seasons has been hard to ignore, with last season arguably being the best the program has had in school history. The Gophers set new program records on bars (49.575) and floor (49.575) and qualified a team to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2016.
But perhaps the biggest victory of the season came at the Big 10 Championships when the Gophers posted a program record score of 197.750 to secure the programs first Big 10 title in 15 years, snapping a consecutive six title streak for the Michigan Wolverines.
“There were so many emotions going through everyone from all the hard work we put in and it just kind of showed up that day,” said fifth year senior, Lexy Ramler. “I think it also proves that anything can happen. Each team just has to go out there and do their job that day. I think that opened our eyes.”
Suddenly, anything really did seem possible. If they could take down one of those most dominant teams in the conference, what else could they do?
Later that year the Wolverines went on to become the first Big 10 program in history to win an NCAA title. In 39 years of NCAA gymnastics, only six teams had won the title up until that point: three from the SEC, two from the Pac 12, and one from the Big 12.
Although Minnesota and Michigan are rivals on the competition floor, fifth year senior Ona Loper said seeing a Big 10 school break through to win the title left the Gophers feeling inspired and motivated.
“They were on fire the last couple of meets going into nationals so it was just so exciting to watch,” Loper said. “Oklahoma and Florida are usually the ones expected to win, so to have Michigan, a Big 10 team win was very exciting and I think it gave us confidence that a lot of teams are growing and are ready to fight for a national championship.”
Hungrier than ever, the Gophers kicked off the 2022 season with the same energy and attitude they had in 2021. That was exactly the mindset the team planned to have when they returned to campus and began official practices at the end of September; they wanted to pick things up exactly where they left off. “And we’re doing it,” Ramler said. “We’re showing it.”
Currently ranked 6th in the nation as a team, as well as 2nd on vault and floor, the Gophers have made a strong statement with just three meets under their belts. They have already shattered the program record they set on floor last season (49.575) with a massive 49.725 at home against Michigan, and just missed breaking their program record on vault by half a tenth.
Individually, they are thriving as well. Ona Loper is first on vault with a 10 already in her pocket this season, Lexy Ramler is second on beam as well as fifth on bars and in the All-Around (she was first in the nation the last two weeks), and sophomore Mya Hooten is fifth on the floor with a routine that has become a fan favorite early on. Hooten stands out not only for her sky-high tumbling done to perfection, but for her ability to make the floor her stage.
When she performed the routine in front of a packed Maturi Pavillion on January 24, earning the second perfect 10 of her career, the crowd absolutely ate it up. “That was crazy,” Hooten said. “I think the fans really brought the energy. I had never heard that many screams before!”
As special as Hooten’s perfect 10 routine was, it has an underlying message of empowerment that makes it even more impactful. Minnesota has been at the forefront of several racial injustices in recent years that have sparked nation-wide protests, including the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Hooten’s routine, set to Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” has symbolic choreography such as pushing away the people who dislike the black community and covering her mouth, “because sometimes we don’t have a voice,” Hooten said. At one point she is down on her knees getting arrested, before finally breaking free. Hooten raises her fist in the air to signify one thing: “I’m proud of being Black,” she said.
In addition to Hooten, who has already etched her name in the history books as the only Gopher gymnast to score a 10 on floor, having Loper and Ramler back for a fifth year has been a major asset for Minnesota. The duo are easily among the most decorated athletes in program history, with several perfect 10s, school records, and other accolades to their names.
The decision to come back, Loper and Ramler say, was an easy one. “For me, it was kind of a no-brainer to come back,” Loper said. “If you can do the sport you love for another year then why not do it?” Ramler echoed the same sentiments. “It was an easy decision. Another opportunity to do the sport you love–how could you say no!?”
With Ramler, Loper, and Hooten leading the way for this talented team, the Gophers have a long list of goals they want to achieve this season. They want to hit the 198 mark and score a perfect 10 on every event in one competition. They are striving for a team NQS score of 197.5, a team GPA of 3.5, and of course, defending their Big 10 title. Lastly, they want to be one of the four teams down on the floor fighting for the NCAA title at the end of the season.
The team reads this list often to keep their goals at the forefront of their minds. They use it as a source of motivation as they work on the little details each day in the gym–which they ultimately hope will lead them to their end goals.
“We do talk about all the little things that we have to do in order to reach those big goals,” Ramler said. “We have certain handstand percentages that we want to hit, stuck landing percentages… and if we do those we’ll reach that 198 mark and some of those bigger goals.”
The motto for the Gophers this season is ‘us versus us.’ It serves as a reminder to stay present in the moment and do the best they can for each other. They aren’t focused on what all the other teams are doing, only on being the best version of themselves.
“We don’t care who we’re competing against, we just want to focus on us and stay in our bubble,” Hooten said. “We could be going against the number one team, it doesn’t matter, we just have to focus on us.”
And if there’s one thing the Gophers want to prove, it’s that they’re a top team. And they’re here to stay.
“We are on the up rise,” Ramler said. “We’ve had so much experience over these last few years and we just continue to build and get more consistent. We’re ready to compete and when we show up, we want to be taken seriously, but have fun doing it, too.”