Gymnast Aspen Tucker is just scratching the surface

Coach Shannon Welker: “She’s got talent, she works hard, and she brings it when it’s time to bring it.”

Freshman Aspen Tucker completes a piece of her mount onto the balance beam during Mizzou's home exhibition in the Hearnes Center, Dec. 10, 2016.

Aspen Tucker started the meet on bars, looking to lead the Missouri Tigers to a hot start. It was the GymQuarters Invitational on Feb. 17, and the team was competing against three top-10 teams, including No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 LSU.

Tucker was cruising through her routine until she lost her grip and fell. She had posted her lowest score of the season on any event to start the meet.

She shook it off and nailed her vault routine, setting a career high.

Tucker exudes calm and poise, not letting the magnitude of a situation get to her. She is engaged but not revealing. The highs and lows come, but Tucker remains unfazed. On to the next routine, the next opportunity.

“I think that’s the beauty of what she does when she competes,” coach Shannon Welker said. “She’s pretty even-keel. That’s how she is in practice; that’s how she is in the meet.”

But at the beginning of the season, Tucker wasn’t so even-keel. She wasn’t certain if she could contribute right away to a solid Missouri team looking to make it to the NCAA Championships.

“At first it was a little scary because I knew I had the ability, but I wasn’t so confident in myself as everybody else was,” Tucker said.

That changed quickly. All it took was the Tigers’ first meet of the season against Ball State and No. 24 Illinois for those unconvinced feelings to wash away. Tucker competed in all four events, and as the all-around. She was solid in her collegiate debut, finishing third on floor and taking home the win as an all-around.

“After the first meet, I was more confident in myself and actually started to to believe why everybody was so confident in me,” Tucker said. “I started to settle down.”

Tucker has steadily progressed over the course of the season and is peaking at the perfect time. During the past three weeks, she has posted career highs on vault, bars and floor.

During that time the team has posted season-high scores in three consecutive weeks, culminating Friday when the team posted the third-highest score in program history against Auburn.

Tucker has been instrumental to the Tigers’ success this season, competing in all four events in all but one of Missouri’s meets.

Tucker said routines mostly come natural to her, but during big moments in competitions, she focuses on the technical aspects of her routine, rather than the overall product. Technique, after all, can make or break a routine.

“I’ve mainly improved on the little things on floor, my landings and where I am stepping,” Tucker said after Friday’s meet. “And my jump series on beam, because I’ve been struggling with that throughout the week. The little improvements are making the biggest difference.”

Tucker has made these strides by putting in the work. More reps in practice lead to better results on the floor. But Tucker also has something else working in her favor: She’s a fast learner.

Cathi Curtis said that Tucker has always picked up new skills quickly. Curtis coached Tucker at Coast Elite Gymnastics from when Tucker was 3 until she graduated high school and left Lehigh Acres, Florida, for Missouri.

“She was always super talented, loved doing new skills, really loved learning new tricks,” Curtis said. “You could show her something, other kids would take a year to get it and she could do it 10 times and have it.”

Curtis witnessed Tucker evolve as a gymnast and remembers one specific area Tucker made huge gains in: her presentation.

“Aspen is not super outgoing by nature; she was always shy,” Curtis said. “When she was really little, her routines always looked like she wanted to run. She really overcame that later.”

Welker said it is common for gymnasts to struggle with their presentation when they first arrive at college.

“You know it’s a big change,” Welker said. “I think the performance value is a little bit different going from high school or club level to the collegiate level. I don’t think she’s any different than anybody else, but it’s something we’ve definitely worked on, and it’s definitely improved with her too.”

Tucker was just awarded SEC Freshman of the Week for gymnastics, and is raising her game to a new level when it’s needed most, something her coach has noticed before.

“Aspen has a knack for kind of upping her game a bit when it’s time to go,” Welker said. “You have to have the combination of talent and ability to compete. She’s got talent, she works hard, and she brings it when it’s time to bring it.”

Outside of a hectic first month, when she was trying to figure out how everything worked between being a freshman and being on the team, it’s been a smooth transition to college for Tucker. However, Tucker said she noticed the different dynamics of a college team.

“I’d say the biggest difference is that in club, it was more individualized, and you were there for yourself,” Tucker said. “But now you have a team that has your back that’s always going to be there, even if you make the little mistakes.”

For athletes, considering the amount of time spent together at practices, competitions and classes, the team might as well be family.

The team that surrounds Tucker is close-knit. Within the team, she gravitates toward juniors Kennedi Harris and Tia Allbritten as well as sophomore Xarria Lewis when in need of support or a little advice.

“If I’m frustrated or something, they will come talk to me and get me out of my little funk that I’m going through, so I can keep going with the day,” Tucker said.

During meets, the four interact with each other, offering up words of wisdom or simply their presence to ease any anxiety or nerves.

“There are a lot of times where I’ll have Xarria stand in a certain corner on the floor because I’m used to seeing her, so it will give me a little boost of energy before that last pass,” Tucker said. “Or Ken [Harris] will come give me pep talks before an event. Tia stands next to me on bars so that I can see her in my line of vision.”

The Tigers finish out regular season competition Friday at home against Kentucky. It will be one more chance for Tucker to improve before the SEC Championships and potentially an NCAA Championships appearance at the regional or national level.

“Our goal as a team would be to make it to the NCAAs,” Tucker said. “Individually, I just want to keep progressing so that I can help my other teammates progress too, so that we keep getting better.”

It seems inevitable that Tucker will soon be filling a leadership role. She is confident in her ability to perform and is already looking to assist teammates. Welker said he notices that the gymnasts he coaches tend to get even more comfortable in their second year.

“I think she can be one of the best in the country,” Welker said. “She’s already pushing that as a freshman. I think she’s as good as nearly any freshman in the country right now or close to it. I think as the years come, she’ll be as good as anybody in the country.”

It is now up to her to stick the landing.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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