Writing history: Iowa State gymnastics senior class changing culture on the way to success

Iowa State senior Haylee Young performs her beam routine during the Cyclones quad meet. Young scored a 9.900 en route to a 195.775 win over No. 19 Minnesota, Michigan State and UW-Stout. 

Austin Anderson

Up the front stairs of Beyer Hall, past the gymnastics offices, and through the red door, two words flash across a TV screen.

The two words make up a statement that has been at the Iowa State gymnastics practice facility since before the 2018 season began, but they carry meaning that began long before.

“Writing history” appears on the screen before the slideshow transitions away. Just like the slide, the people most responsible for carrying out the mission of ‘writing history’ will soon transition away from the sport they have competed in for nearly their entire lives.

In a few days, the regular season will come to an end. In a few weeks everything but the National Championships will have come and gone. In a little over a month, no matter what happens, the five Iowa State seniors will have competed in gymnastics for the final time.

Four years ago, these seniors showed up. Some made the commitments to stay in their home state. Others moved across the country because Iowa State was one of the few places to give them a shot.

All of them were tasked with helping build a program that was far from a contender. The year before these seniors signed their letters of intent, in the biggest meet of the year, the Cyclones scored nearly two full points lower at regionals than they did in their lowest score of this season.

They knew they could be the ones to help bring Iowa State back to the success the program saw in the early and mid-2000s when the Cyclones were contending for National Championships. But they didn’t know they would be the ones who would change the culture of the program all together.

Some didn’t even know they were going to be Cyclones at all.

When Briana Ledesma was a senior in high school, she was just looking for a school where she could walk on. She decided Iowa State was where she wanted to be.

“It was the first school to make me feel like if I came here, I would be valuable and I would serve a purpose,” Ledesma said.

Then a month before her freshman year was scheduled to start, her family found out they weren’t going to be able to pay to attend Iowa State. She called Katie Minasola, who was the assistant coach recruiting her at the time, and told her she wasn’t going to be able to be a Cyclone.

“I was in tears because I wanted to come here so bad,” Ledesma said. “I had to tell them that I had to look somewhere else. Somewhere that can give me money or that’s close to home because I just couldn’t afford it.”

Ledesma then went to an exhibition where she could showcase her skills to potential college coaches. She caught the eye of Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers offered her a scholarship for her first two years in school. As Ledesma was getting an offer, Minasola overheard the conversation and made a phone call to Iowa State coach Jay Ronayne. She told him what she had heard and that Iowa State had to find a way to give Ledesma an offer.

“She was a phone call away from being gone,” Ronayne said now.

The Cyclones found a way. This is the second consecutive season where Ledesma has served as a team captain.

Before their freshman year, the senior class had a group chat where they talked about what it would be like to go to the National Championships.

They had no idea how challenging that task would actually be. Kelsey Paz was one of many who struggled with confidence during her freshman year. It brought her to the point of tears on multiple occasions.

“I cried for a week then I had to go compete again,” Paz said.

The upperclassmen at the time also weren’t always completely welcoming.

“It was a weird group back then,” Ronayne said. “Honestly they didn’t expect [to win]. That was very frustrating for us as a coaching staff to try and change that culture. It took a long, long, long time.

“We’re finally there.”

That’s the difference between the team these seniors came in on and the team they are leaving. Previous teams under Ronayne hoped to win. This team expects to win.

In 2017, there were no seniors on the roster. Making this class the leaders for the last two years.

This year has really been the year they’ve broken out. The Cyclones have four victories over top-20 teams this season. Their 16-4 record has kept them inside the top 25 all season.

Ledesma realized it after the opening meet of the season in Arizona. The team was preparing for beam, which is an event the Cyclones have struggled with in the past. Ledesma looked around at her teammates.

“Nobody was worried,” Ledesma said. “In that moment I was just like ‘This is a whole different team.’ After we finished that meet we were like ‘We’re going to do something this year.’”

Ronayne said this team is also different in that they are okay with their teammates being good. Gymnastics is unique in the way it is an individual sport wrapped up in a team sport. Growing up, gymnasts are a part of club teams but they compete individually. So adjusting to the team dynamic in college is a challenge for many.

“It’s really special,” Haylee Young said. “We’re literally like a family. I know people say that all the time but I’ve never felt this close with each and every person before.”

All of the seniors come from different places and different backgrounds, which makes their dynamic unique.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” Hilary Green said. “Each one of the girls in my class were placed there for I don’t know what reason. We just help each other out in unique ways. We are so different but we mesh so well.”

The history for this team is still being written. Friday will be senior night but it won’t be the last meet of the season or even their last time competing in Hilton. Next week the Cyclones travel to Arkansas. The week after that Iowa State will host the Big 12 Championships.

Regionals will follow and if things break in a certain way, the season will end at the National Championships.

Yet, the impact of this senior class is obvious.

“I think they already have [written history],” Ronayne said. “They’ve set a new tone. It’s this senior class that helped established this culture of working hard for something that’s worth working for.”