Why Everyone Should Have Coffee With Aleah Finnegan

By Christy Sandmaier

“Aleah is a rising star! We’ve been fortunate to have the luxury of bringing her along slowly her freshman year, but we are already seeing the tremendous impact she can make. Her long-term impact on this program is limitless, and I don’t mean just her gymnastics.”

Jay Clark

Head Coach, LSU

Aleah Finnegan wants to make sure if I ever venture to Baton Rouge to check out a meet at the PMAC or tour LSU’s 38,000 square feet, state-of-the-art training facility, I also hit up Light House Coffee, one of her go-to spots for a daily caffeine fix, and a sanctuary of sorts when she wants to relax or grind out school work. No pun intended. It’s just one tiny piece of what’s making her so happy.

There’s, of course, a lot of gymnastics. But there’s also her team who she loves so much, her faith and family, and most of all being her authentic self that’s making it all work.

On the floor, she’s the definition of determination and joy competing in her first year for the LSU Tigers, who are currently ranked No. 7  in the country. After hitting career highs on beam and floor on February 25 in a quad meet against Pittsburgh, Texas Woman’s University, and Centenary, Aleah finally feels everything’s coming together, especially after adjusting her mindset with the help of her teammates after mistakes at Missouri the week before.

“I had more of an aggressive mindset after that meet,” she said. “I was really attacking each thing that I did and obviously it worked out in the end. I’m really just excited to see that each meet I’ve gone to I’ve progressively learned something about myself.”

Off the floor, she’s confident in herself, living her truth, and speaking her mind. “I’m just doing so much better here. Mentally, physically, all of the above,” she told me. “I’m excited to see where the rest of the season goes.”

It shows. It’s truly special to see her smiling so much now.

Up until her debut in the PMAC at Gymnastics 101 in December, my lasting memory of Aleah was at the 2021 U.S. Championships in Fort Worth, where she was devastated to place 23rd in the All-Around and missed the cut for Olympic Trials. The top 17 advanced from that competition. In a flash, everything she had worked for seemed to be gone.

“It all happened so fast. [It felt] like it was ripped from me,” she said. Afterall, in 2019 she was a team gold medalist at the Pan American Games and just two weeks prior to Fort Worth, had placed fifth at the GK U.S. Classic. It was heartbreaking for her to not move on to St. Louis and at least have the opportunity to try for Tokyo. 

Now, it seems she’s moved on to something so much greater than an Olympic experience.

At LSU, she fits right in making some noise for the purple and gold each time she’s in the arena. Aleah’s sister Sarah is an LSU legend with 23 All-America honors, two NCAA Championships on bars and is the 2019 AAI Award Winner, so Aleah has an incredible support system behind her at home and away. She’s guided by strong faith and family, in part due to the hardships she faced. 

In August of 2019, her father Don Finnegan passed away after years of battling cancer. The loss bonded the family beyond words and Aleah leans on her belief that everything happens for a reason to inspire and motivate her, and to get her through the most difficult times. “I think the faith in our family brings us all together. It’s hard being away from your family and being on your own, but really those values that we have keep us together.”

Together with a team who has her back all of the time through the good and the challenges, Aleah, who’s majoring in Business, acknowledges the transition to college was tough at first. “When I first got here, honestly it was kind of a struggle just keeping up through new changes from where I lived and how I did things, school, practices – it took a bit of time to adjust but I got into a groove. All of the girls were very helpful to me just navigating through campus and LSU does a really good job with having people available to help us with classes, anything we need. My roommates came in during the summer and got the layout of everything before I got there and helped me just navigate a whole new chapter.”

And so, from Fort Worth heartbreak to Baton Rouge rise, Aleah Finnegan is exactly where she wants to be. It was simply inspirational to chat with her during her break from classes for Mardi Gras. Enthusiasm is after all, contagious. Here’s more from Aleah in her own words, as authentic as she gets. Oh and next time Aleah, coffee’s on me!

You look so at home and so happy. Is LSU just exactly the right place for you to be?

Oh, absolutely! I really just couldn’t picture myself anywhere else. Each time we have a competition, I’m just so excited. I really am just so happy to be here and I’m enjoying every moment.

I saw you post on Instagram recently, “It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint.” Tell me more about that and what you were thinking and feeling at the time.

After the Missouri meet, you know, I had a couple of falls I was not exactly happy with! My teammates were talking to me and we like to say because the season is so long, it’s a marathon not a sprint. You can’t just go full out power mode in the first meet because we have all this time to go. I had to remind myself it’s the baby steps that’s going to get us where we want to be.

At the beginning of season, how did you pace yourself and work towards getting into lineup? What advice did your teammates give you?

We’re really focusing on being present and in the moment. It’s easy to get caught up on what’s going to happen in April, what’s going to happen next month or next week even. We’re really focused on just taking it a day at a time. One practice at a time. Being here and present.

What was that first moment like for you in the PMAC? 

It was just so surreal. I’d seen it from the stands and on TV, of course. But just being in there with the audience around you and everyone just really wants the best for you – physically and mentally. I was trying to take it all in and I was just so overwhelmed by the amount of love and support that was going on in there. It really was just unmatched.

Obviously this question comes up a lot, but for you personally, talk about the transition from elite to college. Was it what you expected as far as the day to day?

The main difference is that our practice is a lot shorter. Personally, for the pre-season I had a hard time just getting everything in those two to three hours we had in the gym! I was used to having all this time, so being more efficient at the gym is the biggest thing. And of course, being comfortable with my routines and having the flexibility to take the reins and have input on those decisions. 

Let’s go back and talk about the 2021 U.S. Championships. There are many, including myself who felt you should have been put through to Olympic Trials along with at least two more athletes who were not invited. Tell me about the competition and your thoughts… Do you think you should have gone?

Well, I am a little biased so… But I do think that even though I had an unfortunate meet that day, I felt like I had shown enough of my numbers and shown them I was good enough to be able to go to Trials. I felt lost in that moment, but obviously it’s something I can’t change. Just from my personal opinion, it was very heartbreaking because I had known that I was good enough to be there. I think we were all just a little bit lost.

How did you use that experience as a positive going forward to get stronger?

I was talking to someone over Instagram and texting and they were like, “Hey, I need your advice, I’m going through a really hard time.” So, I think taking it as a positive to be able to inspire people who’ve had that heartbreak – whether it’s ending a career or just hardships in general – I think I was able to shed some light. I believe everything happens for a reason. I can’t go back and change the past but I think I can hopefully be a positive for the people around me.

Would you ever consider going back to elite?

I don’t think I’d necessarily go back for the USA. However, there has been talk about [competing for] the Philippines. So, the door’s still open for that and we’ll see where that one goes.

You seem to be very much living your truth and putting yourself out there. Is that something you’ve always had in you? Or, have you found your voice along the way?

I want to be very authentic to myself. Social media, it’s hard to be real because I do know that I have a lot of little girls that have been following my page. If I was in their shoes, I would want someone to look up to who’s like that. 

Tell me about each of your coaches at LSU and what they’ve brought to your gymnastics. You trained with Courtney, so what’s it like having her coach you now?

It’s been such a joy being able to work with Courtney again! I’ve known her since I was 10 years-old. It’s really nice because we grew up with the same coaching. She knows how to communicate and understands me because we do have that connection.

Jay has been nothing but great whenever it comes to my gymnastics. He had a great plan as soon as I got here – I was coming off of another foot surgery when I got to campus – and he said, “I’m just really going to work on pacing you.” We just took it one event at a time. I can speak up about what’s on my mind, if I need adjustments. He’s been really great at understanding where I’ve come from and what I need.

Garrett is one of my favorite people! He’s very supportive. If I’m ever having a hard day, he’s the one who’s going to pick you up and support you. He and Courtney just mesh very well. They’re just a great combo who I think are really going to help us in the long run.

And Bugs (Ashleigh Gnat) is so supportive with my beam. In college, you’re really not learning new skills, you’re just perfecting what you have and she’s been really great at just pointing out the little details I might have missed before. The connection we have is amazing.

Does D-D still come into the gym at all?

She definitely makes her appearances and she’s at every intrasquad! At first, I was like, “Oh my gosh, D-D’s here!” But her and my mom are great friends and she loved Sarah and everyone. Bob (Moore) comes into the gym as well. It’s really great to see everyone!

What are your goals individually and then for the team as you build up to postseason?

I mean, I have my individual goals like getting a 10! It’s one of those things I’m reaching for each time, but also just getting 1% better each time. I have team goals as mine because I like to think of it as if we make those team goals, I know that I did my job. SEC Championships, and in the end, we do want the National Championship. I think our team really does have what it takes. 

What’s the best thing about being an LSU Tiger?

The culture and environment we have. The genuine love surrounding our team. I really just think LSU is my match. 

Up next for the Tigers: After a tough loss to Kentucky last week, LSU faces the No.4 Utah Red Rocks Friday night at 7:15pm CT in the PMAC. 

For the full interview, including Aleah’s thoughts on what needs to change in the elite women’s program, Leanne Wong’s success, Sarah’s advice, the team dynamic and so much more, see the April issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine! 

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Photos by LSU Gymnastics; Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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