By Kevin Dowd
February 24, 2011
Mention the name Kristen Linton around the Washington gymnastics team and prepare to hear more raves than at a Pixar media screening.
Photo by Ted Copeland.
Head coach Joanne Bowers on her senior gymnast Kristen Linton: “When you look at her on floor, her dance quality and her performance quality — when she performs, everyone in the entire arena, just stops, and their mouths hang open.”
Photo by Ted Copeland.
Senior Kristen Linton has embraced the team aspect of collegiate gymnastics.
Her fellow captain, senior Sam Walior, describes Linton as an “absolutely gorgeous” gymnast with gymnastics that are “beautiful to watch.” Her head coach, Joanne Bowers, agrees.
“She is so beautiful, artistically, to watch,” Bowers said. “When you look at her on floor, her dance quality and her performance quality — when she performs, everyone in the entire place, no matter what arena, just stops, and their mouths hang open.”
However, Linton wasn’t always the gymnast who stops crowds whenever she puts on a leotard.
When Linton graduated from Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, Wash., she was finished with gymnastics. After two injury-plagued seasons, her junior and senior years of high school, Linton was set to enroll at Western Washington University — a school without a gymnastics program.
“I actually quit gymnastics after my senior year,” Linton said. “I didn’t really have any options, so I was just ready to move on. But then Jo [Bowers] called, and I immediately changed my mind.”
For Bowers, the decision to offer Linton a walk-on spot on the team was easy. She was wowed by Linton’s film, and thought that the relatively unknown gymnast could become a star. It didn’t take Linton long to prove her right, earning a scholarship after only one quarter on campus.
“We told her, if you do what we think you can come in here and do, you could earn [a scholarship],” Bowers said. “She was so talented. There was never any question in our minds that she could do this.”
Both at Meadowdale and at her club, the Seattle Gymnastics Academy, Linton was in the unique position of being the only real top-level gymnast on her team. Whenever she would have another teammate of a similar caliber, the teammate would promptly quit — after all, the physicality of top-level gymnastics isn’t for everyone.
“It was kind of a lonely thing,” she said of her pre-UW career. “I really enjoyed gymnastics, and I was good at it, but I always wished I had a bigger team.”
Enter Bowers, Walior and the rest of the Huskies. Having a true team with other gymnasts to bring out the best in her has made the past four years the best of her life and changed Linton for the better.
“She loves the team concept, and she values that, very, very much,” Bowers said. “Helping her teammates, and them being there for her — that means an awful lot to her.”
Bowers also noted the positive impact that the rest of the team has had on Linton.
“With the team concept … you don’t want to let your teammates down, whereas when it is just you, you might let yourself off the hook,” she said. “I think her teammates, more than anything, really helped her.”
Linton acknowledged the impact that the team dynamic has had on her skills over the past four years.
“It’s been really helpful for my gymnastics,” she said. “I just really like having them there to back me up, and to hang out with even outside of the gym. They’re kind of like my best friends and my family.”
A true family is a symbiotic relationship, with each side helping one another. And as much as the UW program has helped Linton, she may have helped the program even more in her four years on campus.
When the freshman class of Linton, Walior and Haley Bogart entered the UW in 2007 as Bowers’ first recruiting class, the Huskies regularly sat in the 20s and 30s of the national rankings. Now, with this trio captaining the squad, the Huskies have catapulted up to become the No. 11 team in the nation, perhaps on the brink of the program’s first trip to nationals since 1998.
Each member of the senior class has already advanced to nationals as an individual: Bogart in all-around as a freshman and both Walior and Linton on floor last season as juniors. Their experience on the sport’s grandest stage has only furthered Linton and her classmates’ desire to return — but this time, not alone.
“Nationals was a great experience,” Linton said. “It was nerve-racking, but it was also really exciting. … I definitely feel like the experience would be that much more with the whole team there.”
Walior talked about how the experience at nationals changed Linton, both as a gymnast and as a leader.
“Freshman and sophomore year, she was all over the place,” she said. “Now, she’s one of the people on the team that if she hits, which is 90 percent of the time, she’s going to go above 9.8 or 9.85 every single time. It is awesome as a senior and as a captain that she is that kind of person.”
The face of the program will be drastically different next season, when Linton and co. have departed. Bowers, for one, isn’t quite ready to say goodbye.
“The idea of senior night, the idea of saying goodbye … it is going to be very hard. I want the season to last for a long time,” Bowers said.
Reach reporter Kevin Dowd at email@example.com.