Eight years ago, Lindenwood did not even have a gymnastics team. Now, five MIC Championship titles later and a berth to compete at Regionals secured- only the second NCAA Division II gymnastics program to ever qualify to regionals-, the women’s gymnastics team is one of the fastest-rising programs in the nation.

Head Coach Jen Llewellyn has been part of the gymnastics program from the start, saying that the “diamond in the rough” school inspired confidence in her the very first year of the program that there would be “greatness down the road”. That greatness came quickly, as Lindenwood’s immediate success has stunned the gymnastics community and collegiate athletics world, helping create a new level of respect for Division II gymnastics.

With as much success as the Lions had during their opening years, many people saw the DII label and wrote them off, with junior Ryan Henry stating people seem to think “Oh, you’re just a DII school,” and overlook the team’s ability. Henry, having attended regionals last year as an individual competitor, knew that Lindenwood had what it took to compete with the best, regardless of division, and came into this season knowing the team “was fully capable of qualifying to regionals.”

With the focus for the team, in Llewellyn’s words, always being “to have fun and celebrate every single meet,” success has continued to come for Lindenwood, with huge wins over the SEC’s Missouri, an in-state powerhouse rival to the Lions, and the Big 12’s Iowa State just a couple of the highlights of the season. Henry, and the rest of the team, know that when they “stay within their bubble,” they can do great things. It is clear to anyone who takes a moment to watch Lindenwood compete that they enjoy every second on the competition floor, and Llewellyn believes the “energy and enthusiasm” that causes the team to just “have a giant party every time they’re on the floor,” is why they’re so successful.

Katie Bailey and Jen Llewellyn celebrate after Bailey performs on the balance beam for the Lindenwood Lions in St. Charles, Missouri/Lindenwood Athletics

Llewellyn was a collegiate gymnast herself at Pac 12 powerhouse Oregon State and has learned from her experience to always coach her athletes to “bring out everything possible so they have no regrets when they leave,” admitting that she sometimes “cut corners” as an athlete. Her coaching philosophy is to “bring the best out of [the team] each and every day for their four years,” not pushing in a “negative way,” but helping them to leave the sport of gymnastics with “no regrets” and even more importantly with the “tools and resources to have an identity outside of gymnastics” and “be confident in the real world.”

Henry, who has been one of the stars of the Lindenwood team ever since her arrival on campus, has even pushed herself to be more “lighthearted and carefree” in her transition to becoming an upperclassmen, wanting to help her teammates “feed off that energy,” and has noticed a “big change on the competition floor.” The now-junior originally committed to Lindenwood because of it’s newness and her excitement for being able to be “a part of the firsts,” and her hope to “make history with the program.” As just the second Division II program in history to qualify to regionals, less than eight years after the start of the program, Henry has been a part of just that, with even more history sure to be made in the future, history that her coach Llewellyn states is “very exciting for the sport of gymnastics.”

The program has had its share of challenges, however, this year more than ever. With two assistant coaches moving to different programs at the start of the year, the team was left with “no idea what was going to happen.” Llewellyn states the team just “trusted the process” and worked “harder than any team she has seen in her entire life,” and the team has been rewarded with a berth to the “big dance” in college gymnastics, an accomplishment Llewelyn says “still hasn’t sunk in”. With a motto for this season set right after a second-place finish at the USAG National Championships last year- a motto that is being kept a secret until the end of the season- the team has not let anything get in the way of their goals.

Jen Llewellyn and Cody Llewellyn celebrate after a Lindenwood Lions gymnastics meet in St. Charles, Missouri/Lindenwood Athletics

The success of the program is special not only to Lindenwood but to the sport of gymnastics as a whole, especially in building the credibility of young Division II and III programs and proving that they have the talent and ability to compete with any team out there. Llewellyn, who herself is a huge advocate for growing the sport of gymnastics, says she “hopes so badly that schools see gymnastics as a sport on the rise nationwide,” and follow Lindenwood’s example to add a sport that is “very positive for empowering women.”

At the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional play-in meet between Lindenwood and George Washington on Thursday, April 4th, expect the underdog Lions to be throwing a giant party, as they always do, on the competition floor, with Henry stating the goal is just to “leave it all out there and having a great time.” With a large group of parents and fans traveling to support the Lions, the team hopes to have a large crowd cheering them on, with Llewellyn adding she hopes that the host LSU parents “jump in with theirs” to create an even louder cheering section. The team has already made history this season, but the true success seems to be in the immense joy radiating from the athletes and coaches every second the team is on the floor, a joy that propels the success of the program and continues to help expand opportunity and shape gymnastics into the empowering sport it should always be.

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