Nastia Cup Stars: A Look Back

Nastia Cup Stars: A Look Back

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Nastia Cup Stars: A Look Back

As we gear up for the 15th edition of the Nastia Liukin Cup, we take a look back at each of the past senior champions and where the sport (and life) led them!

Lexie Priessman – 2010 Champion 

At just 13 years of age, Lexie Priessman won the 2010 Nastia Cup in its inaugural year – wowing the crowd with her big skills (she dismounted beam with a full in) and star potential. Priessman went on to have a successful career as a junior Elite gymnast, winning the All-Around and floor title at the 2012 U.S. Championships in addition to numerous international titles from 2011 to 2013.

Priessman went on to become a six-time All-American on the uneven bars at LSU and the program’s first SEC uneven bar champion in 20 seasons when she won the title in 2017. Priessman graduated from LSU in 2019 with a degree in sports administration and now works as the Director of Gymnastics for the athlete representation company Narrow Pathway Management.  Priessman also returned to the Nastia Cup in 2023 as a coach with junior Esphyr Koren – a full circle moment we absolutely loved!

Priessman – now Mrs. Heffron – got married in August 2023 and announced in November she is expecting her first child with her husband Cory!

Grace Williams – 2011 Champion 

After a brief stint at the Elite level in 2010, the 2011 Nastia Cup really solidified Williams’ status as one of the top Level 10 gymnasts in the country. Williams won three J.O. National All-Around titles before heading off to Lincoln, Nebraska where she was a key contributor for the Cornhuskers in her collegiate career. Williams owned career highs of 9.9+ on every single event and was a Big Ten c0-champion twice on beam.

Williams graduated from the University of Nebraska in 2018 and now works as an elementary school teacher.

Charity Jones – 2012 Champion 

Charity Jones was one of the best Level 10 gymnasts of her time, taking home the J.O. National Championship crown in 2011 ahead of her win at the Nastia Cup in 2012. Jones went on to win the the vault, floor and All-Around National titles later that same year.

In 2014, Jones joined the Oklahoma Sooners and was a member of the programs first National Championship winning team. Jones competed in all four events in her career as a Sooner, posting career highs of 9.9 or higher on every event, and left Norman as a 3-time NCAA team champion.

Jones graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2017 with a degree in Criminology.

Alex McMurtry – 2013 Champion 

Before she was a Gator Great, Alex McMurtry was a Level 10 superstar! (It’s no surprise she has seven national titles to her name!) After finishing second All-Around at the Nastia Cup in 2012, McMurtry came into the competition on a mission in 2013. When all was said and done, she walked away with the All-Around crown, as well as the individual event titles on vault, beam and floor.

McMurtry went on to etch her name in the history books at the University of Florida, becoming just the 10th gymnast in NCAA history to record a gym slam with a perfect 10 on all four events. McMurtry, who was best known for her picture perfect Yurchenko double twist on vault and her sky-high triple twist on floor, was a member of the Gators’ last NCAA Championship winning team during her freshman year in 2015.

McMurtry graduated from the University of Florida in August 2018 with a degree in Applied Physiology & Kinesiology. She then went on to Duke University where she graduated from the Physician Assistant program in August 2022. McMurtry most recently got engaged in the summer of 2023!

Mackenzie Brannan and McKenna Kelley – 2014 Champions

After competing at the Elite level from 2009 to 2012 — where she qualified to the U.S. Championships each of those years — Brannan transitioned back to Level 10 with her eyes set on college gymnastics. Brannan won the J.O. National floor title in 2013 before going on to win a share of the Nastia Cup title in 2014. She wrapped up her level 10 career with a national vault title before heading to Tuscaloosa to rep the Crimson Tide.

Brannan went on to be a key contributor at Alabama, winning the SEC vault title in 2016 in addition to winning the Regional uneven bar title with a career high 9.975.

Brannan graduated from the University of Alabama with a psychology degree and now works as a physical therapist.

Brannan of course shared the top spot at the Nastia Cup with McKenna Kelley, the daughter of 1984 Olympic All-Around Champion Mary Lou Retton. The 2014 Nastia Cup was somewhat of a coming out party for Kelley as it was the first major win of her Level 10 career. Kelley went on to win the J.O. National floor title later that year and then began training to compete at the Elite level in 2015 where she was invited to participate in several U.S. National Team Camps.

Kelley joined the LSU Tigers in 2016 where she was a vault specialist her freshman season but by the time her senior season rolled around, she worked her way into the vault and beam lineups as well. Kelley ended her career as a 4-time All-American and the 2017 SEC floor champion, and left her name in the record books with a perfect 10 on floor.

Kelley graduated in May 2019 with a degree in psychology and now works as a special education teacher.  In 2021, Kelley launched the McKenna Kelley Foundation where she raises money for mental health organizations and also serves as mentor for young athletes. Kelley also stays involved in the sport through her own meet series (hosted by LR Productions) alongside her mother, called the Forever Our Legacy Invitational. In January 2024, Kelley announced her engagement to her boyfriend Braden.

Maddie Karr – 2015 Champion

Before she was a star at Denver University, Maddie Karr was one of the best Level 10 gymnasts in the nation. Karr put up top three All-Around performances at the J.O. National championships in 2014 and 2015, but really put gymnastics fans on notice when she grabbed the Nastia Cup title in 2015. Karr ended her Level 10 career with All-Around, vault, bars and beam national titles in 2016, which set her up perfectly for her transition to college.

Karr will forever be known as one of the all-time greats for the Denver Pioneers, posting what was (at the time) the All-Around program record in 2020 (39.775).  Karr had career highs of 9.95 or higher on every event, including a perfect 10 on vault, which she did three times.

Karr got married in to her fiancé Colby in 2022 and remains active through weightlifting and paddle boarding. (Fun fact, Karr teamed up V23 Athletics and Team Elly’s Angels to paddle board 80 miles in one night from the Bahamas to Florida to bring awareness to cystic fibrosis. Although storms ended the journey at 60 miles, her team raised over $37,000 for the Pipers Angels Foundation and certainly have A LOT to be proud of!)

Rachael Lukacs – 2016 Champion

Like many of her fellow Nastia Cup Champions, Rachael Lukacs posted some impressive stats in her Level 1o career including nine national titles from 2014 to 2018. After qualifying to the Nastia Cup in 2014 and 2015, Lukacs finally grabbed the crown in 2016.

In her time as a Georgia GymDog, Lukacs was a key contributor, bringing in scores of 9.825 and above on all four events. However, her specialty was on the power events – vault and floor – where she performed one of the few Yurchenko double twists being done around the nation on vault, and opened floor with a huge double layout.

Lukacs graduated from the University of Georgia in 2022 with a degree in criminal justice. In December 2023 she got married to former Georgia baseball player Coleman Smith.

Kai Rivers – 2017 Champion

Kai Rivers impressed as a Level 10 athlete, collecting three national titles before going on to win the Nastia Cup crown in 2017, placing her front and center on gymnastics fans radars. Just a few months later, Rivers won vault, bars and the All-Around title at the J.O. National Championships and rounded out her medal haul with the gold on her bars in her final J.O. National Championship in before heading off to college.

In her freshman season for the LSU Tigers, Rivers was a consistent performer on vault and bars, posting career highs of 9.9, but also posted a massive 9.95 in her first beam routine ever for the Tigers. Although injuries have limited Rivers in her collegiate career (an Achilles injury took her out of her sophomore season entirely and another injury ended her senior season early in 2023), her positive energy and radiant smile have never faded. Rivers returned for a fifth year in 2024 and has played a huge leadership role for the Tigers on the sidelines as the team looks for its first ever NCAA team title.

Haleigh Bryant – 2018 & 2020 Champion

Haleigh Bryant is a name we’re all familar with. Fans around the country knew early on she was going to be a star from the moment we first saw her sky high front handspring front pike half on vault, along with her fabulous tucked double front on floor. Bryant is the first gymnast in history to win two Nastia Cup titles (2018 and 2020), but that was just the beginning of it all.

Now in her senior season at LSU, Bryant holds many records, including being the first LSU gymnast to record a gym slam (a perfect 10 on all four events) and only the 14th gymnast in NCAA history to achieve the feat. Bryant also holds the LSU record for most perfect 10s (13 as of now) and holds a share of the All-Around program record with a 39.875.

Tiger fans are hopeful Bryant can help lead LSU to its first ever NCAA team title this season and are keeping their fingers crossed she chooses to return for a fifth year. (Bryant’s class is the final class that have the option to take a fifth year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.) We’re keeping our fingers crossed too!

Makarri Doggette – 2019 Champion 

During her Level 10 career, Makarri Doggette competed in five Nastia Cups and it appears the fifth time was the charm! After never placing higher than fifth in the competition in previous years, Doggette got the victory in her final Nastia Cup appearance in 2019. Doggette also made a little history in her Level 10 career by being only the second gymnast to win all four event titles and the All-Around title at the J.O. National Championships in the same year.

Doggette is now in her fifth year for the Alabama Crimson Tide where she has won an SEC uneven bar title (2021) and owns career highs of 9.9 or higher on every event, including two perfect 10s on the uneven bars.

Leah Smith – 2021 Champion 

Starting 2021 with a win at the Nastia Cup was the launching pad to greater success for Leah Smith. A Washington commit at the time, Smith ended up switching her commitment to Arkansas after wrapping up her incredible season which included a win on floor at the J.O. National Championships and a second place finish in the All-Around.

Smith has been a reliable force for the Razorbacks, contributing on all four events  with career highs of 9.95 on vault and floor, 9.85o on bars, and 9.9 on beam. The Razorbacks have seen a tremendous rise in the rankings with record breaking scores and a rapidly growing interest in the program from fans around the country in the last few seasons. Will Smith and the Razorbacks be able to contend for a spot at the NCAA Championships for the first time in program history? We’ve got them on our radar!

Jamison Sears – 2022 Champion 

After wrapping up her Elite career (which included an appearance at the U.S. Championships as a junior in 2019), Jamison Sears shifted her focus to Level 10 and closing out her final chapter before college with a bang. The 2022 Nastia Cup was an exciting battle that came right down to the very end, with Sears grabbing the All-Around crown after a tie break, as well as the beam title when all was said and done. Sears rounded out the year with a win on vault and floor at the Development Program National Championships, and defend her titles (plus won bars and the All-Around) once again in 2023.

Sears is now in her freshman season at Alabama, where she has competed on vault (9.9) and floor (9.875). Sears and her Crimson Tide teammates hope to reclaim the SEC title (the team last won in 2021) and punch a ticket to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth to have a shot at the title.

Kailin Chio and Avery Neff – 2023 Champions

Last year in Louisville, the title was shared by two top-notch athletes: Kailin Chio and Avery Neff. Both Chio and Neff were among the top recruits in the class of 2024 and have only continued to solidify themselves amongst the best with numerous national titles. (Chio won vault and bars at the 2023 Development Program National Championships, while Neff won beam, floor and the All-Around.)

Neff is set to join the Utah Red Rocks next season and Chio will be head to Baton Rouge to join the LSU Tigers.

In 2024 we could see the first ever back to back Nastia Cup Champion. Although Chio is unfortunately out with an injury, Neff is a favorite to grab the title once again.

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics 

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