Senior GymDawgs Have One Final Goal: NCAA Nationals
March 14, 2013
By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - Paige Bixler is a Texan who moonwalks to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" during her floor routines.
Phoebe Tham lived her first 10 years in Singapore then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where her mother's family was from. Then she looked south and found UW.
Kylie Sharp is the first known college student-athlete to compete with two chronic liver diseases that will require a transplant. She's about to become the first in her family with a college degree.
Lauren Rogers is in her second of two breakout seasons to become Washington's top all-around gymnast. She's a pragmatist, a double major in business and finance whom teammates tease for being perhaps too real.
"Lauren thinks she's logical, but she's just a dream crusher," Bixler said last week after a practice in the team room at Alaska Airlines Arena.
"'Rain Cloud!' Please write that!"
"Please don't," Rogers said, laughing along. "Write that I am realistic and logical."
Megan Whitney chose Utah out of high school. Then after one year she saw the light that Bixler, Tham, Sharp, Rogers, and coach Joanne Bowers was shining on the rising GymDawgs program. She transferred here to make this senior class a five pack.
These veterans have changed the standards of the program from one that wished to make the NCAA championships to one that now expects to.
Washington enters Friday's senior-night meet against Brigham Young and Seattle Pacific (7 p.m. at Alaska Airlines Arena, with live video here on GoHuskies.com), 27th in the Regional Qualifying Score rankings that determine the 36-team field for regional round of the NCAA tournament April 6.
The top two teams in each of six regionals make the 12-team final round, the NCAA's national championships at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion that begin April 19.
Last spring, UW missed making the NCAA finals as a team for the first time since 1998 by a scant .25 points.
"I hate to say the NCAAs define my time here, but that's the goal I've had for the last four years," Bixler said. "I mean, we've had, obviously, a wonderful four years. And I wouldn't change it for the world.
"But," she added in a rising, sing-song voice, "it would be nice to make nationals."
The seniors feel proud of what they will leave behind at UW - regardless of whether this team finally breaks through the ceiling of national judging perceptions and the sport's inherent subjectivity to make the national finals.
"From freshman year to now, the difference is crazy," Bixler says. "From the way the group practices to the way we compete to what we expect of ourselves, it's all great.
"Our leadership style is, either you are committed or you are not. And now I think we have the whole team committed to a common goal.
"We're not going to say it's all us. I mean ... we're pretty good."
Only two of the four freshmen - it was still a year before Whitney decided to transfer -- had met each other prior to the day they showed up to start their Washington careers.
"We were so awkward," Tham said.
"We would come down to breakfast and not talk to each other," Sharp said of those first dorm days.
Bixler added, laughing: "The day we moved in we were like, `Hi, I'm your new best friend.'"
That's exactly what they became.
Sharp relied on her classmates to get her through her remarkably challenging UW career.
She had an endoscopy procedure last month during which doctors sent a tube down her throat and into her abdomen to balloon open clogged ducts. That allowed bile to exit more freely from her dysfunctional liver.
"Basically, what the doctor has told me is two years down the road it's going to be a liver transplant," Sharp said.
She has yet to finish a complete season for the GymDawgs, though she expects to compete Friday in her home finale.
"Kylie has been an inspiration to all of us because of the way she never gives up," Bowers says. "She cares about her team. She loves her sport. She has a strong faith. She is on the dean's list. She is exactly the type of person you WANT to see succeed.
"She has been in charge of our team's community service; it amazes me how much she wants to give to other people. She is an amazing young woman in every way."
Sharp doesn't think her teammates are too bad, either.
"Every day, I'm just so thankful. If I had gone somewhere else I don't think that I would still be in gymnastics," she said. "The people here have worked with me so well and helped me get through this."
Bixler has known Bowers since she was a grade schooler visiting Michigan with her family. Bowers was on the Wolverines' staff before she arrived to run Washington's program beginning in June 2006.
"My family is from Michigan, so they are all huge U of M fans," Bixler said. "I had always gone on unofficial visits to Michigan. And that's how I met Jo."
Bixler had shoulder surgeries in each of her first three years at Rowlett High School. That scared off most college recruiters - except Bowers.
"Jo was one of the only ones to actually give me a chance," she says.
"Then I visited Washington and loved it. The coaches, they actually cared for us as people than as walking money symbols."
Bixler got her moonwalking the summer before her sophomore season at UW.
"I loved Michael Jackson," she said. "I was working with my choreographer, and she said, `I'm not going to let you do the moonwalk until you perfect it.' So I did."
After not weeks but months of her working on sliding and gliding across the mat -- Bixler often moonwalked in any free moment, anywhere that summer - it is now her signature on floor exercise now.
Bixler is a double major in communications and sociology who is also graduating in June. She wants to stay in Seattle, at least for a while, and would love to eventually move back to Texas to be a school teacher -- or a sports marketer.
Her father is a fifth-grade teacher, and Bixler tutored first- and second-grade students last year as part of an independent studies course at Seattle's Madrona Elementary.
Tham is doing a similar internship this winter and spring at Green Lake Elementary near the UW campus.
Tham moved from Singapore to Vancouver when she was 10. Her junior club coach there had sent gymnasts to UW, so that her attention as she moved through high school. She chose Washington over Illinois-Chicago.
"I really liked it, and I knew it was a really great academic school," Tham said.
She is about to graduate with a biology degree. She wants to be a physician's assistant in the Seattle area, where her family since moved.
Sharp is about to receive her anthropology degree. She knows she's due soon for that liver transplant, but not until after she explores Tahiti. She's been accepted into a student-exchange program this summer on the island in the South Pacific.
"You're just jealous," Sharp said.
"We are jealous," Tham replied.
Rogers was a junior in high school in Plains, Pa., when UW began recruiting her.
Her first impression about moving to Seattle?
"I was having none of it," she said. "I was like, `No way.'"
Then Rogers' coach talked to Bowers one night for two hours on the phone. The Holy Redeemer High coach begged her gymnast to contact Bowers. Rogers finally did, to "humor" her high school coach, she says now.
Bowers' force of personality combined with all UW has to offer athletically and academically persuaded the Pennsylvanian to come west - way west - over five other schools, including, you guessed it, Michigan.
"When it came down to it, it was just a gut feeling that this is right for me," Rogers says. "Just the whole package. The coaches, the school, the area. It had it all."
Whitney felt the same way. It just took her a year later to act on it. She didn't like the fit with the coaches at Utah - but loved the one with Bowers and UW when they recruited her out of high school in Mesa, Ariz.
"After I decided to transfer I didn't look at any place but here," Whitney said. "It's worked out perfectly, and I couldn't be happier about that."
She is graduating with a psychology degree. She is applying to physical therapy school, and her first choice is UW's.
Together, the five seniors have helped improve the perception of Washington gymnastics from a program on the rise to one that's about arrive.
That's important. Gymnastics isn't like, say, basketball, where if the shots go in you win and if they don't you lose.
"I think people still forget about us sometimes, and every year we seem to sneak up on people," Tham said.
"It's frustrating. You kind of get the feeling if everyone was wearing the same color the scores would be more fair. But it comes with the territory of being a building program."
Bixler agrees the subjective nature of the sport is just the way it is - and almost always has been.
"In this sport if you want to be considered among the top teams you have to perform better than the top teams," she said.
Washington is starting to do just that -- thanks to these seniors who have come a long way in four years from not knowing each other over breakfasts.