Fans of women’s collegiate gymnastics know of the unique camaraderie that exists among its competitors. Until recently, it was something of a well-kept secret. The Louisiana State University Tigers, though, offered a shining illustration that reached a wider audience and transcended the sport when they rallied around a competitor to bring out the best in themselves and their rival.
This spring, for the first time in 15 years, UCLA did not advance to the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships as a team. “It was devastating,” said freshman Chae Campbell, who qualified as an individual in the all-around competition. “I was unsure and a little nervous what it would be like without my teammates.”
Then, she learned that she would rotate with LSU as it competed on each apparatus. A team on the rise, LSU was aiming for a national championship and could have focused solely on its own ambitions. Instead, the Tigers embraced Chae as a member of their team.
LSU freshman Haleigh Bryant wasted little time welcoming Chae via social media. The Tigers already had watched video of Chae’s floor routine and learned it so Chae would have a set of backup dancers for support. During practice and competition that week, Haleigh and her teammates stood nearby as Chae performed, mimicking her moves and cheering her on.
“When your teammates are doing your routine, you have so much more fun out there,” Haleigh said. “They care about what you’re doing, and they want you to do the best you can do.”
Haleigh and teammate Kiya Johnson knew Chae from national meets as youngsters, so they shared a bond in rising above the struggles, the injuries and family sacrifices to reach the collegiate level.
“Obviously, we did not look as good as her doing it, but we understood that competing without your team at nationals is really hard,” Kiya said. “We wanted to include her as much as possible to not only help her but help us. Her energy matched ours.”
In the end, they brought out the best in each other. “We knew we would be pushing each other,” said Haleigh, who tied for first place in the vault while Kiya and Chae earned three All-America honors each.
“They knew this was my first national, and they could have easily focused on themselves because they wanted to win a national championship,” Chae said. “But they let me into their group and their team huddles. That was above and beyond.”
Chae also got to share in another of LSU’s traditions, the passing of a jeweled stick crown for routines done well. “I wasn’t expecting it, but I was hoping I would be good enough to get the crown. I’ve always loved the tradition,” she said.
Though honored with the jeweled stick crown, Chae is more delighted that the Tigers have earned the Musial. “The fact that a little gesture is being recognized for an award like this blew my mind,” she said. “LSU is being celebrated for exactly what the sport needs: women supporting women. I’m really hoping that more people will see this is a sport that’s competitive but realize you can’t be the best version of yourself if you tear down other people.”
Though LSU didn’t meet its goal of a national title, assistant coach Ashleigh Gnat said the Tigers walked away with teaching moments by adopting Chae as one of their own.
“It was special to watch it happen but it’s something we’ve come to expect from the way they embrace one another,” she said, adding that winning the Musial, “leaves a legacy for people in the future. It brings an expectation to be able to do those things. We’re excited that this is another step in the right direction for our program.”