By LARRY VAUGHT
Since her brothers played soccer, Alex Hyland did, too, until her father told her at about age 9 or 10 that she had to choose either soccer or gymnastics.
For the University of Kentucky senior, it was an easy choice and turned out to be the right choice.
“I was just always flipping around the house. Gymnastics was a lot more fun than soccer. There is a lot of thrill in competing and doing all these things that other people can’t do,” said Hyland.
She said it was “very common” for gymnasts to have grown up jumping off furniture and taking other risks in their younger years.
“I broke my arm doing flips around the house when I was five,” Hyland laughed and said. “But I always loved gymnastics. It’s my favorite thing in the world to be doing.”
She does it quite well, too.
— Only six UK gymnasts have ever earned All-American honors, Hyland is one of them.
— Only three UK gymnasts have won SEC Championship events, Hyland is one of them.
— Fourteen UK gymnasts have earned All-SEC honors, Hyland is one of them.
— Fifteen UK gymnasts have qualified for berths in the NCAA Championships, Hyland has done it twice.
She’s also been part of teams that have recorded the top nine scores in UK gymnastics history along with senior teammate Sidney Dukes, another All-American and All-SEC performer.
Hyland says the duo never envisioned how special their careers might be when Hyland arrived from Massachusetts and Dukes from Texas.
“I think we came in wanting to make an impression. We wanted to be the best that we could be but I don’t think we were thinking about our senior year and all we might have done and could still do. We just wanted to do the best we could,” Hyland said.
She said it was her sophomore year when she sensed UK gymnastics was on the verge of being special.
“Freshman year we set some records but then sophomore year is when we really hit the point where we wanted to be. We were getting high team scores and setting so many records,” Hyland said. “It was a season of highlights and we knew Kentucky gymnastics was going somewhere. Last year was just kind of the icing on the cake making it to nationals.”
This year started with over 13,000 fans coming to Rupp Arena for Excite Night, a night Hyland says was “amazing” for all the gymnasts.
“We love competing in Rupp Arena because we get so many people. The fan base is huge now and they love Kentucky gymnastics,” Hyland said. “There are so many little girls in the crowd who just want to be on the floor and do college gymnastics. Cool that we can be an inspiration to little kids.”
It’s the same when she returns home to Foxborough, Mass. She says there was not any “serious” high school gymnastics in Massachusetts and she went to a small gym to train.
“There weren’t a lot of people who did college gymnastics after club career. When I do go home there are little kids who want to talk to me and see what it is like. They tell me they see me on TV,” Hyland said. “College gymnastics is very different. You don’t really compete as a team in club. You just try to get the best score you can and you are competing in all four events no matter what you are doing. That’s what makes here so much fun. It wasn’t just for yourself any more. You wanted to hit that routine for other people and not just for yourself. You get a better team score, team cheers for you. Just a very different atmosphere.”
She had the same club coach from age 6 until she left for UK and remains so close to her today that the coach still attends UK meets.
Hyland’s family makes its presence known, too, at meets. Her father comes to a couple of meets along with the SEC Championships and NCAA meets. Her two brothers attend a lot of her meets.
Then there is her mother, Anne.
“My mom has not missed a meet ever. She travels to every single one. She is a trooper,” Hyland said. “She acts calm for me when she is watching but she is really more nervous than me. She wants to see me do well and does not want me upset if we don’t. She is thinking the same things as me because she knows me so well.”
Hyland knows most fans don’t understand the work gymnasts put in daily and do for years and years.
“I think people think of gymnastics as a graceful sport and one that is not hard on your body. It is really hard on your body,” the UK senior said. “We wake up at 6 in the morning, have practice at 7, go at it for 3 hours, have (weight) lift and treatment. It’s a really hard sport.
“I have had a lot of injuries. I have broken three or four bones, had one surgery on my ankle. Just muscle tears here and there.”
So is a gymnast ever really healthy during the season or just learns to perform through pain?
“There is a different definition of healthy. Healthy as in I can go and practice every day and compete every day without a lot of pain, yes,” she said.
She says her pain threshold is high but there is a fine line knowing when to push through an injury and when enough is enough.
“Sometimes you have to stop so your body can heal. That’s something you learn,” she said. “The trainer will determine if you are not healthy enough to go and need to rehab. If it is just something that is not too serious, then it is your decision about whether to go or not.”
One thing Hyland has no doubt about is whether or not UK will go back to nationals this year. She’s positive UK, which has six seniors, will be back.
“I think we are in a really good spot right now and we are pretty confident. We are just going to keep rolling,” Hyland said.