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By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
When Jenny Hansen arrived on the University of Kentucky campus in the fall of 1992, no one could have imaged the journey that was about to ensue. A journey that would end with Hansen becoming the first three-time NCAA All-Around gymnastics national champion.
In fact, it was just days before she moved to Lexington that Hansen was awarded a scholarship by UK.
“Kentucky was number six for me to come and see,” Hansen says. “I had taken five other recruiting trips before Kentucky. Leah (Little, UK head coach) contacted me, sent me some stuff and told me to take a look at it. I told my parents ‘I kind of want to go there’, so we decided to take a trip to Lexington.”
Hansen and her father packed their bags in Somerset, Wis., and went to Lexington on an unofficial visit. A love of horses was the initial draw to the Bluegrass, but Hansen quickly fell in love with the school on her visit. After meeting with Little, seeing the campus and being shown the campus by her potential future teammates, Hansen was sold.
“We were in the hotel room and Leah said ‘what do you think’”, Hansen remembers. “I said ‘I want to go here, where do I sign?’”
But it wouldn’t be that simple. “When I said that, (Little’s) face went blank. She said ‘I don’t have a scholarship for you’ because she had already promised it to someone else. I was devastated.”
Hansen and her father returned home to Wisconsin. After a family discussion, Hansen’s parents told her that if she had to walk on her first year, they would finance her tuition, and the family hoped she would get a scholarship in her sophomore season.
Two days before she was to arrive in Lexington, Hansen got a call from Little. “She asked if I had signed anywhere, and I said no, I’m coming there,” Hansen says. “Leah said that the girl that had committed, who was from Canada, had not passed her equivalency test, so the scholarship is open, do you want to come here? And I was very excited!”
Despite the fact that she was recruited by powerhouse programs like Alabama, Florida and LSU, Hansen was not expected to be a major factor as a freshman. However, she quickly established herself as one of the top gymnasts in the country, competing in the always-tough SEC.
“I did really well my first year, it was really fun,” Hansen says. “It was like a progression. I was learning new skills, I had new friends. I was continually having fun, therefore I continually won.”
In fact, Hansen made it all the way to the NCAA meet in Corvallis, Ore. as a freshman. Once she got there, she faced some stiff competition.
“It was so unreal to me, because of the people I was competing against,” Hansen says. “There was Dee Dee Foster (from Alabama, the 1990 NCAA All-Around champion), Hope Spivey (1991 NCAA All-Around champion from Georgia), Dana Dobrasky (another Alabama All-American), all of these girls were so big in college gymnastics at the time, and I was competing against them.”
Not only did Hansen compete against them, she beat them all, claiming the 1993 NCAA All-Around championship as a freshman.
“There was no pressure, it was just like another meet to me,” Hansen said. “I was still having fun, and I won again. It was pretty neat.”
After her stellar freshman season, Hansen returned to the NCAA Championships as a sophomore, after another strong season. She had already exceeded some of her own goals.
“I didn’t have any expectations for myself, heading into that meet,” Hansen says. “My sister went to Arizona, and she did four events (in the NCAAs) as a freshman, then three, then two, then one, and I thought that’s what I would do, that thought was in my head.”
But Hansen qualified for all four events at the 1994 NCAA meet in Salt Lake City, Utah, and she repeated as all-around champion, becoming the second gymnast to ever win back-to-back titles (Oklahoma’s Kelly Garrison-Steves won in 1987 and 1988).
“I remember doing interviews before the meet, and everyone was asking if I was going to win again, and I had no idea” says Hansen. “That was a crazy meet because of the elevation. I was just surprised that I had won.”
Hansen returned for her junior season, with eyes on something no gymnast had ever done, becoming a three-time champion.
“My junior year, I kind of doubted myself actually,” she says. “I didn’t have much confidence in myself. The season went really well, the team did really well, but for some reason, I didn’t have confidence that I should have been in the (NCAA) meet for some reason.”
The nerves and tension of the 1995 NCAA meet were weighing heavily on Hansen as the competition began, but some friendly faces provided the inspiration she would need in the meet.
“A group of my friends came down (to Georgia) to see me, and once I saw them, I said to myself ‘I can do this’, and it was history after that,” Hansen says.
Hansen succeeded in winning her third straight all-around title, but this one was a little different, because of the reaction she received.
“It was a great, huge feat, but I was just having fun,” she says. “But I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, because immediately, people started asking if I could win four in a row.”
After the season, Hansen was named the winner of the 1995 SEC Athlete of the Year.
Heading into her senior season, Hansen seemed destined for immortality. No gymnast had ever won three all-around titles in a row, and Hansen had a shot at four. However, the regular season did not live up to the lofty expectations that everyone had for Hansen.
“I had a difficult season as a senior,” Hansen says. “I don’t know what it was, if I was burned out on the sport, or just having the pressure of being the top person. I was tired, of the gymnastics, of the pressure and I think I let it get to me, and it wasn’t much fun.”
The pressure and expectations led to some uncharacteristic performances from Hansen. “I had fallen a couple of times and I had a negative image in my head,” she says.
Despite her troubles, Hansen made it back to the NCAA meet for the fourth straight season. And when the competition started, she appeared to be on her way to a fourth straight title.
“I went to bars first, and bars was not my event,” Hansen says. “I did a great routine, and I remember landing and Leah saying ‘it’s over, you’re going to win four’, and I started to think about it.”
Then, in an instant, the dream came crashing down. “I went to beam, and right before I started, the last visualization I had was me falling,” Hansen says. “I started my routine and, sure enough, I totally fell off. I got back up on the beam, and I was so mad. I remember thinking ‘you fell, you’re not going to win, so there’s no reason to be mad, just relax and have fun’, so that’s what I did.”
Hansen ended up placing fifth in the meet, even with the fall from the beam. Despite not winning her fourth title, Hansen is still the only gymnast to ever win three straight all-around titles. Georgia’s Courtney Kupets won three all-around titles in her career, but they were not consecutive (2006, 2007, 2009).
After her career at Kentucky, Hansen gave up competitive gymnastics until recently. She was still active and involved with gymnastics, but she didn’t compete. Hansen served as a stunt double on the ABC show “Make it or Break it”, which was about gymnastics. While doing the show, she came across a very famous face who offered some encouragement.
“Two years ago, at the end of the season, Bela Karolyi had done a cameo on the show,” Hansen says. “He saw me vault and asked why I wasn’t on our national team for vault. It was a nice thing for him to say, but I didn’t really take it to heart.”
Friends of Hansen told her she should think about what Karolyi had said. “They told me he is not the type of person to say that to just anybody, so I started thinking about (competing), and I said ‘why not, I’m doing it on the show’, and that’s how I got back into it.”
Hansen started by training herself, and she found that she still had some of the magic that led her to three straight NCAA titles.
“I didn’t do too bad, considering I didn’t know the elite rules or anything,” she says. “I had to overcome some injuries here and there.”
Hansen, now 38, set a goal of competing in the London Olympics in 2012. “I got myself a coach, (UCLA assistant coach) Randy Lane, who is well-known in the NCAA gymnastics scene. He worked with me, and I started to compete.”
Despite her efforts, she came up just short in the qualifying stages, but Hansen does not have any regrets. “I have a peace about it now,” she says. “It’s OK. My journey is done and I can carry on my gymnastics in so many ways.”
Hansen now lives in southern California and continues to work in the entertainment industry. She says she hopes to improve her acting and her stunt work as she pursues this career path. She has also begun a career as a motivational speaker.
But Jenny Hansen will always be known as the gymnastics champion from Kentucky, and she treasures the memories that she made while in Lexington.
Hansen is a member of the University of Kentucky Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, and she was flattered by both of those honors.
“It says a lot about the state of Kentucky, how they love their athletes,” she says. “Kentucky really is my second home.”