Amara Cunningham has had a different coach nearly in each of her four years with the Huskies gymnastics program.
In a time of uncertainty with COVID-19, it’s made the past few seasons even more difficult.
That hasn’t deterred Cunningham — one of two seniors on the team — or her teammates from their goal of getting back to nationals. That journey begins Saturday with UW’s season opener in Corvallis, Oregon, where the Huskies will face off against Oregon State and No. 9 San Jose State.
“I’m kind of used to it at this point,” Cunningham said of the changes. “This year has been awesome with the new coaching staff. We’re on the same page of everything we want. We want to make nationals this year. It’s nice to have everyone on the same page.”
The Huskies didn’t make regionals last year, which Cunningham said was “hard at the time.” The objective surpassing even that and heading back to nationals is a lofty one, but in her last season at Washington, Cunningham wants to aim for it.
So does new head coach Jen Llewellyn, the third Huskies coach in three years.
“Relationships are everything,” said the Kenmore native. “You win with people first. And so making sure that relationships do take time and because they’ve had so many coaching changes in their four years as a senior class, just taking the time for them to get to know me and us as a coaching staff and vice versa for us to get to know them as people not just as gymnasts.”
Llewellyn comes from Lindenwood University, where she won six conference championships and three USAG National Championships.
Her challenge at Washington will be different. It’s a step up to Division I, with a team that has lofty expectations despite a disappointing campaign last year, and an extremely young returning squad.
A few weeks ago, the discussion around their experience was returning to normalcy. Omicron’s omnipresence in sports, though, might make this season similar to last season’s COVID-altered schedule.
“A lot of our sophomores did get experience last year, but they didn’t experience in full, it’s basically like their freshman year all over again for our sophomores,” said Llewellyn. “So experiencing what it’s like to travel every single weekend from January all the way till April, what it’s like having fans in the stands, being able to actually interact with people and not just be isolated in your hotel room, and those types of things.”
There’s a lot of returners who made leaps last year. Isa Weiss, a junior, was one of the higher finishing gymnasts in the Pac-12 championships for the Huskies. Skylar Killough-Wilhelm is just a sophomore and she had one of the top scores. Geneva Thompson is the lone fifth-year Husky.
Cunningham is hoping for a deeper run this season for her and her fellow seniors. The 2020 season was stopped in its tracks, with Washington seeing all matches canceled before the Pac-12 championships. Then came the disappointment of missing regionals in a full season for the first time since 2006.
The Huskies have historically been a powerhouse. They had made consecutive nationals before falling in the regionals in 2019, and were on pace for another run when the 2020 season was halted.
It’s felt like a lot of unfinished business.
“The first goal for us is just to be back where we were two years ago and make regionals, which I think will be very easy for us this year,” Cunningham said. “But we also have a goal to make postseason nationals, which I also think is very doable for this team. I think the biggest thing that we need to work on is just consistency.”
Consistency on the floor, but also consistency in the building is important. For an athlete who has had three different coaches in three years, and two seasons go awry, it could be easy to mentally check out.
But Cunningham is more motivated, especially with a young group to guide to be the next great Husky gymnasts.
“This year is a big year of building culture,” Llewellyn said. “Building those relationships, that trust, that consistency, especially through all phases and a whole year we have summer, preseason open gym, mandatory workouts, competition season so there’s a lot of different phases of the year. It’ll take a full year with us in order for them to really understand who we are and what our expectations are. … So just building that and identifying what is our purpose as a unit and as a team.”
The purpose, Cunningham believes, is to get back to being not only competitive but one of the best in the nation.
“Last year was weird,” she said. “It’s not what we’re used to. … We have the skill, everyone is super good, we just need to make sure that when it counts, we’re doing what we need to do.”
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