COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Shannon Welker took the Missouri gymnastics coaching position nine years ago, he saw the program as a diamond in the rough.
The program had the resources, the facility and the financial dedication, but it lacked direction and consistency, he said. Nearly a decade later, the same assistant coaches that Welker brought in for the 2014 season when MU finished No. 41 in the nation have stayed.
Slower than Welker probably would have preferred, Missouri (5-3, 0-3 SEC) has built a program that ranks among the nation’s best. Heading into Sunday’s final conference home meet against No. 16 Arkansas and No. 5 Louisiana State, the No. 11 Tigers are looking to improve their standing within the conference and NCAA seeding position.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to look around any Power Five school and find a coaching staff that has been together as long as we have,” Welker said. “That continuity has been a key in our ability to get better and better. … Like everything, you just got to stick with stuff and show some perseverance and eventually those things will work out if you have enough time and you’re driven enough.”
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Life in SEC gymnastics isn’t easy. Despite being ranked No. 11, the Tigers are sixth out of eight teams in the conference. Their goal is to finish in the top half of the conference, but that is a tall task. MU is winless in conference play, but those results don’t tell the whole story. Missouri went undefeated against nonconference competition and also scored a school-record 197.775 on Feb. 4 against No. 2 Florida. The scores, not the wins and losses, decide the rankings. Mizzou vaulted to No. 9 in the national rankings after the Florida meet.
“It is a balance. You could have a fantastic competition like we did against Florida and end up not winning that meet by the slimmest of margins,” Welker said. “At the end of that, as a coaching staff certainly we all wanted to win that as well, it’s hard to walk away and be disappointed when you have a performance like that.”
Missouri currently ranks No. 7 in the nation on the balance beam, No. 10 in the floor exercise, No. 12 on the uneven bars and No. 19 on the vault. The Tigers peaked at No. 2 on the beam earlier this season.
A top-10 finish would be the team’s first under Welker heading into the 36-team NCAA Regionals in late March. Eight teams then advance to the NCAA Championships.
In the coming weeks, Missouri might get more support from one of its strongest gymnasts. As a freshman, Helen Hu notched two WCGA Regular Season All-America honors and was named the SEC Event Specialist of the Year.
“I was just having fun the whole time,” Hu, a redshirt sophomore, said. “Once I got in to the mindset and the culture here, once I got a lot stronger from all the weightlifting, I was just having fun with it. Competition didn’t really feel the way it did in club. It wasn’t something that I dreaded or felt nervous about.”
After a standout campaign in year one, Hu missed all of last year with a knee injury and has battled back pain throughout much of this year. Welker has eased her back by competing her only on the balance beam rotation, her favorite event. As early as later this month, however, she could be back to competing on the uneven bars.
“We’ve learned to make sure we don’t get greedy and we eased her back in and capitalized on the events she does the best and would be the easiest on her body, too,” Welker said. “We think we’ll be able to make a nice back third of the season and postseason push with her.”
But how does Missouri take the next step as a program to compete for national titles? Welker said the Tigers must continue to recruit and to change the culture. This year’s team has more depth than any Hu has competed with in the past. Last year, MU went into competitions with 10 gymnasts competing, but now, MU has 13 or 14 contributing each meet.
The highlight of the season may have been Florida, but Hu believes the Tigers can top that record.
“We did really great, but we can do better than that,” she said. “We’re definitely looking to break it again. I think we’re definitely capable of hitting a 198 on a good day.”
On Sunday, Missouri will have a chance to pick up its first SEC win of the season. Unlike most SEC meets, this will feature three schools and Welker is approaching it like a mini SEC Championships.
“We’re not going to overlook Arkansas either,” Welker said. “I know they haven’t had quite the year that they had last year, but they’ve got some talented young ladies on their team. I wouldn’t be surprised if any team ends up on top this weekend.”