When Foxboro High alum Alex Hyland stepped up to the vault for her first event as a freshman gymnast at the University of Kentucky, it was obvious that competing in the SEC was going to be vastly different from the top-level club meets that she took part in high school.
“I was very nervous,” admitted Hyland during a recent phone conversation. “But as soon as I saluted for my first vault it became real to me and I wasn’t as nervous because I knew they were all rooting for us and wanted us to do well. So, I ended up feeding off the crowd very well.”
Hyland has fed off the enthusiasm of the crowds, her teammates, and the pressure of competing in the nation’s top conference and she has shone on the biggest stages in collegiate gymnastics. In two seasons at Kentucky, Hyland has been named All-SEC twice, winning a share of the SEC title on the balance beam last season, twice has qualified for the NCAA Championships, and last spring was selected as an All-American.
“That’s amazing,” she said. “It’s nothing I planned to do. I just wanted to go out there and do my best, so when it results in that I was very happy.”
It has been a long journey – from an active 6-year-old “always flipping around the house” to starting out at Arnold’s Gymnastics in Mansfield, working under coach Nikki Longo, to being one of the top performers on the sixth-ranked team in the country.
“It was a shock when I came here,” Hyland, now a junior, said of the environment at Kentucky, including meets at the 10,000-seat Memorial Coliseum. “Everything’s just a little bit bigger and there’s so much more on the line. I never expected myself to go this far from home, but I ended up loving it.”
She added, “I was training at a high level before, so the training isn’t as much different as all the meets are on TV, everything’s a little more important in college, but I also like that. It’s kind of cool to have a team behind you and be on TV.”
With all the top performers returning from a team that finished 13th in the country last year (barely missing out on the top 12 and a spot as a team in the NCAA Championship) and several new athletes adding fresh routines, Kentucky has high expectations this season. Hyland said that the Wildcats are not concerned with the target on their backs but are motivated by living up to their potential.
“It’s been really great so far,” said Hyland, the day after Kentucky beat SEC rival Auburn 196.700-196.250. Hyland posted an all-around score of 39.225. “We kind of like having the pressure. I think it makes us want to do better at all the meets and we have more confidence going in, so that helps too.”
Personally, Hyland has plenty of confidence after the success of her first two seasons with the Wildcats. As a freshman, she scored a 39.175 to win the NCAA Regional all-around title, recorded the highest uneven bar score (9.9) of any Wildcat that year, and won six event titles. Last year, Hyland was named a regular season All-American with her beam qualifying score and then won the beam title at the SEC Championships with a score of 9.50.
“The routine I did was probably the best I’ve done,” Hyland said of becoming an SEC champion. “I honestly wasn’t thinking about titles or anything. Before you salute, you’re not thinking I want to win this event, I just went out and did what I usually do and tried to do my best.”
Being seeded fifth entering the meet, Kentucky was in the first group of teams to compete on the apparatus. Hyland went sixth and posted her strong score, but then had to sit and watch as the second group went through, keeping track from the sidelines to see if her score would hold up, which it did.
Foxboro does not have a high school gymnastics program, so all of Hyland’s experience growing up in the sport was through Arnold’s Gymnastics. Under the tutelage of Longo, who remained Hyland’s coach right up until she left for college, Hyland was a four-time state champion and qualified for the Junior Olympic Nationals four times.
College coaches started recruiting Hyland during her sophomore year at Foxboro. She attended several camps during the summer and made the decision to commit to Kentucky.
“The first thing was that they’re in the SEC and the SEC is the best gymnastics conference in the nation,” she explained. “I went to a camp here and I loved the staff, I loved the girls on the team, the facilities here are amazing, they treat athletes so well. I just loved everything about it.”
It is not only the results that have been positive so far. The experience of being part of a team, something that was missing from club gymnastics, has added a new dimension to competing. No longer is gymnastics solely an individual pursuit.
“It’s a whole different mindset,” Hyland said. “You compete for your team. So, if you mess up and your team does well, then you’re happy because team success is the ultimate goal. Everyone is happy for each other and it’s really easy to feed off everyone’s energy.”
Her teammates are not the only ones that are cheering on Hyland. There are now scores of girls competing in gymnastics at Arnold’s and other gyms in the Foxboro area that are looking up to her, as one of the few gymnasts to compete at the collegiate level, let alone the SEC.
“I used to coach in high school at my club gym,” Hyland said when asked about the reaction of younger gymnasts when she comes back home. “Just to know that so many little kids were looking up to me, it makes you so appreciative for everything you do because these little girls just want to follow in your footsteps. To see that is really life-changing. It was really a great experience.”
Unlike most sports, gymnastics does not afford much time away from training, even in the off-season. But, Hyland does get the chance to come back to Foxboro for a couple of weeks in the summer and she makes sure to return to Arnold’s and look at the equipment that she used to work on every day. It is only a short time to reflect on how far she has come in the sport before returning to Lexington to focus again on getting the Wildcats to the NCAA Championships.
“I’m very excited,” said Hyland. “The whole team is so happy all the time and we have so much confidence. We are really excited to get the rest of the year done.”
Following the win over Auburn, Kentucky posted the same score as a team (196.700), which is tied for the sixth highest in program history, but could not beat LSU (the No. 2-ranked team in the country). On Friday night, the Wildcats (5-3, 2-3) lost for the second straight meet, falling 196.150-195.550 to No. 13 Georgia, but Hyland won her third beam title of the season with a score of 9.875 and took third in the all-around with a total of 39.275.