Gymnast makes history, qualifies for NCAA championships

    April 04, 2014

    FiorilliGymnastics is not for the faint of heart.

    Athletes launch vaults at breakneck speed. They fly and flip across uneven bars, and defy gravity on the dreaded balance beam.

    And sometimes, even the scoring system induces anxiety. Unlike many sports, where scores are posted and updated with great frequency, in gymnastics, that's not always the case.

    On March 21, at the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association championship in Ithaca, N.Y., judges purposely withheld the final scores for a grand revelation.

    Katie Fiorilli had no idea what she'd just accomplished.

    The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater freshman sat on the floor, arm-in-arm with her fellow Warhawks, dressed in a purple and black jumpsuit, awaiting the announcement of the individual all-around champion.

    One by one, names of her competitors were read aloud in descending order. Fourth place... third place... second place...

    Then the announcer called her name.

    "My jaw dropped," Fiorilli said. "All my teammates were looking at me with huge smiles, so excited."

    Fiorilli's all-around score of 38.75 set a program record. She became the first UW-Whitewater student-athlete to win the crown.

    Moments later, for the third consecutive year, Warhawk gymnasts won the team trophy. National champions again.

    "It was the best experience of my life," Fiorilli said. "There was so much energy in the room - coming from not just our team, but the other teams as well."

    The moment marked the culmination of a season wrought with challenges for the Warhawk gymnasts. The team lost its first two competitions of 2013-14 season, lost the regional championship by two tenths of a point, and faced painful personal struggles - two teammates lost close family members.

    Fiorilli and Regan"It was a very emotional season for us," said Jennifer Regan, head coach. "We are really close as a group. The difficulties we faced made our squad even closer. Everybody just got better.

    "The national championships can be a very tense environment. I knew that if we could just go in and have fun, we would be unstoppable."

    In fact, the Warhawks nearly swept the NCGA championships. Allyse Dieringer from Germantown, won the national title on the uneven bars and balance beam; Courtney Pickett from Brentwood, Tenn., won the vault. Regan earned NCGA Coach of the Year honors for the third time in her career.

    It's a sport where a tenth of a point can mean victory or defeat, and Warhawk gymnasts keep one another's performances close to their hearts.

    "If one of my teammates is up on the beam, I'm on the beam. If I'm on the podium, the whole team is," Fiorilli said. "That's what sealed my decision to come to UW-Whitewater. I loved the atmosphere, how the team supported one another. It felt like family."

    Fiorilli, from Solon, Ohio, is majoring in communication sciences and disorders, and hopes to become a speech pathologist someday.

    "I started thinking about that as a career when I took American Sign Language in high school. I got really good at it and I love helping people."

    She began practicing gymnastics at age 3. Vault is her favorite event, which she describes as "five seconds of craziness."

    "I love the challenge of the sport and chasing after a new skill you have yet to master," she said.

    FiorilliHer performance at the NCGA (Division III) championships qualified her for the NCAA (Division I) championship regionals at the University of Minnesota on April 5.

    She is the first Warhawk to achieve this honor. No other Division III athlete qualified for the competition.

    If she scores enough points, Fiorilli can move on to the finals, April 18-20 in Birmingham, Ala., with a chance to become the top collegiate gymnast in the United States.

    "It's a huge honor. My teammates have been super great, supporting me all the way," she said. "I'm going to try to not be stressed out. I'm going in with the attitude to just have fun."

    -- Written by Jeff Angileri, Photography by Craig Schreiner (Photos from the WIAC/NCGA West Regional meet on March 2, 2014 at UW-Whitewater).

    ** APRIL 5 UPDATE >>

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