The Illinois women’s gymnastics team always has a big crowd to cheer them on at home meets, but on Friday, Feb. 8, the team wants to break the historic 2,478-person attendance record. The team competes in Huff Hall and wants to “Stuff Huff” to break the record as it faces Michigan State at home at 7 p.m. CT.
“We love getting as many fans as we can to support the team and watch all of us do what we do best, flip and stick,” said Illini freshman Torie Stotz. “It is really important to us to get people to cheer and shout at our meets to help us compete better and win for the team and university.”
“I think that this meet is super important to have a record breaking crowd because we are going up against another Big Ten team,” added junior Rae Balthazor, “and to have a large crowd that supports us and is invested in our team screaming I-N-I ever time we chant I-L-L is really what season is all about.”
The team is heating up already this year, with a recent win on Jan. 19 over Big Ten foe Maryland. Illinois almost won all five individual event titles, with Karen Howell taking first all-around with a 39.125, Balthazor snagging gold on vault, Mary Jane Otto on bars and Kylie Noonan winning floor.
“Our team culture is all about the freedom that we have in sport and pure happiness every time we step into the gym for practice or step out onto the competition floor,” Balthazor said. “To know that there are 18 other girls that care about my well-being inside and outside of the gym is an incredible feeling … I am so grateful that our coach Nadalie [Walsh] has brought this lightness of heart in a sport that can sometimes be very stressful.”
“We have some very talented athletes with great routines,” said Illini head coach Walsh. “I am confident they are going to be rewarded with great scores over the next few meets. As the team keeps taking steps forward in putting all four events together during competition, I believe we will all see Illinois continue to get better each week, and I know they are going to peak at just the right time.”
At the Fighting Illini’s upcoming meet, they hope to engage fans with 2008 Olympic silver medalist and 2007 world champion Samantha Peszek. Peszek will be attending the meet and doing a meet and greet. Fans who meet Peszek can get autographs and take photos with her as she cheers on the team.
“From a gymnast that also comes from Region 5, Samantha Peszek represents the camaraderie and spirit of the sport,” said Stotz. “Her dedication and love for the sport is inspiring. It is awesome to see someone like her spread her talent and joy for gymnastics to collegiate athletes around the world even after she has graduated.”
The gymnasts should be excited, as Peszek is a well-known name in the gymnastics world. In addition to her Olympic and world medals, she is a six-time national team member, took first in the 2007 Pan American Games and inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2013. After her elite career, she did college gymnastics as well, competing for UCLA. There, she became a 17-time All American and three-time NCAA champion.
Attending this meet is not the only time Peszek gives back to the sport she gained so much from, as she holds Beam Queen Bootcamps at gyms all around the country to help young gymnasts get over their fear of the event and become more confident on the apparatus. “I personally am a huge fan of Sam and I think that one of my favorite things about her is how genuine she is and her influence she has had on this sport,” Balthazor said. “Not only has she encouraged confidence and mentality in sport, but also confidence in ourselves as we continue on through life after sports.”
It is no surprise Peszek wants to attend the Illinois meet, as both of her parents were student-athletes at the University of Illinois. Her mom was on the gymnastics team from 1982 to 1986 and was team captain in 1985 and 1986. Young gymnasts will not only be excited to meet Peszek and get her autograph, but also to attend the youth clinic Illinois gymnasts are holding after the meet, featuring Ninja Warrior events.
“Sam grew up loving the University of Illinois. She is from Indianapolis area, which is only a short two hours away and we are really looking forward to targeting her hometown so they can come support our team and get an opportunity to see Sam,” Walsh told FloGymnastics. She also shared that the team has catchy promotions planned for the students on campus in the weeks before the meet to encourage students to attend.
As if spectators needed one more reason to Stuff Huff, Walsh shared what a special roster the 2019 Illinois team has. “They genuinely love the sport, their teammates, staff and vision. We have built a culture of total trust and support in one another, and this culture is what will carry them all throughout the season and allow our team to keep rising up week after week.”
If you are near the University of Illinois, make sure you head over to Huff Hall on Friday, Feb. 8, and help the team beat the record!