By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Early in her career, Florida gymnast Kytra Hunter was exposed to elite gymnasts and high-level success.
Growing up in Frederick, Md., Hunter trained at Hill’s Gymnastics, the same club that produced Olympian Dominique Moceanu and former Georgia standout Courtney Kupets, who finished her collegiate career as the all-time leader in NCAA individual championships with nine. Additionally, former Florida All-Americans Erinn Dooley and Corey Hartung hailed from Hill’s.
Learning in that culture fueled a competitive drive within Hunter, who was a member of the 2009-10 and 2010-11 U.S. Senior National Teams and placed fourth at the 2012 Visa Championships in the all-around, balance beam and floor exercise standings. She won the 2010 CoverGirl Classic floor title and was an alternate for the 2009 and 2010 World Championship Teams.
Hunter traces that determination back to what she witnessed at her gymnastics club.
“I think that all came from club,” Hunter said. “I came from a gym that had a couple of Olympians with Dominique Moceanu and Courtney Kupets. They’re a big inspiration, especially watching them inside my own club. They always strived to be the best and I’m just doing that now when I have the opportunity.”
Hunter made the most of her opportunities as a freshman at the University of Florida this past spring. As just a rookie, she earned the Honda Sports Award, distinguishing her as the nation’s top collegiate female athlete in the sport of gymnastics. She became the first freshman gymnast to garner the honor since Georgia’s Hope Spivey in 1991 and was just the third freshman recipient all-time.
But it wasn’t always the easiest transition. It takes a while to get comfortable with the move from club gymnastics to college life and training.
“The adjustment period was difficult – just balancing school and gymnastics,” Hunter said. “You have less time in the gym, less time on each event. But I’m glad that I had my teammates and my family and coaches behind me and always pushing me and motivating me through every day.”
They may have been different teammates than the ones she learned from at an early age at Hill’s, but the support of her squad mates in Gainesville helped her just the same.
“My teammates told me positive things all throughout the season,” Hunter said. “They were always there lifting me up when I didn’t have the best meet that I wanted. They told me all the fun they’ve had. Going into competitions, I was looking forward to all of the positive things they had told me and it was really inspiring.”
One of Hunter’s biggest inspirations during the season came at one of her most disappointing moments. In the team’s regular-season finale, a win against No. 7 Utah in which the top-ranked Gators turned in what was then the nation’s second-best score (197.90) of the year, Hunter fell on bars. She used that as motivation heading into the Southeastern Conference Championships.
“I was disappointed in myself,” Hunter admitted. “But during the meet, I knew I couldn’t let the team down. When I got back into the gym, I just did 10 times more releases and I think it helped me mentally.”
Hunter rebounded in a big way a week later in Duluth, Ga., claiming the all-around at the SEC Championships, becoming the first Gator to claim such a victory since 1995. She also captured the vault title and was named the SEC Freshman of the Year en route to helping her team capture its second conference title in a three-year span.
While Hunter was pleased with her successes at the league championships, she knew that bigger things were on the horizon, as The Arena at Gwinnett Center would also play host to the NCAA Gymnastics Championships less than a month later.
“I knew that winning the SECs was a big thing, but I still needed to go back home and work hard,” Hunter said. “I did that and I did everything I could to help the team. It helped a lot that the NCAAs were in the same arena with the same equipment.”
That sparked a tremendous desire within Hunter to be prepared to shine on the biggest stage.
“It motivated me a lot,” Hunter said. “All of us wanted to have the best meet of our lives going into NCAAs. I knew that I not only needed to put in more numbers and skills than I had at our last competition, but I needed to put numbers into every skill that I did. Practicing for the NCAAs, I trained like I wanted to compete and the coaches did a great job of putting us under pressure.”
At the NCAA Championships, Hunter put on a show, tallying a collegiate-best total of 39.725 to become the first Florida athlete ever to win the NCAA all-around title. That made her the ninth freshman in NCAA history to win the all-around. She claimed five All-America honors as a rookie, the maximum number possible, also capturing the NCAA vault crown.
As a team, Florida came just short of winning the NCAA Championship, placing second to league foe Alabama, finishing just 0.075 behind the Crimson Tide.
“I came here with a couple of goals and the goal was always to just help the team the best that I can,” Hunter said. “I never really had the goal of winning at NCAAs. It’s everyone’s goal, but my main goal was to help the team get to the Super Six and hopefully be the No. 1 team. A lot of my goals this year were about the team and not really about myself.”
Hunter has a bright future ahead with the Gators and she plans to use her rock-solid work-ethic to help Florida claim an NCAA team championship in the near future.
“I’m glad that I had the honor to have the best meet of my life and get first place at NCAAs,” Hunter said. “But the thing that means the most to me is to hopefully be able to help my team win the Super Six.”
Of Note: Six different league gymnasts have claimed both the SEC and NCAA all-around titles in the same season a total of eight times.
· Penney Hauschild, Alabama 1985
· Jenny Hansen, Kentucky 1993
· Kim Arnold, Georgia 1997 and 1998
· Jeana Rich, Alabama 2004
· Courtney Kupets, Georgia 2007 & 2008
· Kytra Hunter, Florida 2012