Rachel Borden wasn’t even supposed to be in Carver-Hawkeye Arena when Illinois competed at Iowa on Feb. 16. But she was. And instead of donning an Illinois gymnastics t-shirt like she would when acting as manager at Illinois home meets, she was wearing a white and orange leotard, complete with a big block "I" on the back.
Until Feb. 15, Borden was a retired competitive gymnast. The Legacy Elite alum ended her gymnastics career at the 2017 J.O. National Championships. She was a graduating senior then, preparing to start college in the fall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the school she’d wanted to attend since she was a kid. It was her family’s school. Her mom, aunt, uncle and cousin had all gone to Illinois.
Borden contacted the then-Illinois head coach about joining the team during the fall 2017 semester; however, she was told there were no open roster spots available. She accepted that but didn’t realize there was a coaching change until later in the summer, so Borden was just going to be a normal college student.
Until her first year at Illinois, most of her life was “go to school, go to practice, do homework.” So Borden found it “very, very strange” to not have gymnastics and instead have days consisting of just going to class and studying. She began missing gymnastics, unable to find any clubs or activities that clicked for her like gymnastics did. So when the spring 2018 semester came around, she thought about joining the University of Illinois club gymnastics team: the Flippin’ Illini. Eventually she did join the club team, which welcomes anyone who wants to learn gymnastics, whether they want to compete in NAIGC competitions or not.
“That’s where I fit in the best, being surrounded by people that are all trying to work toward the same goal that I am, getting skills, having fun in the gym,” Borden said. “It was where I found that I clicked with the people that I met in club, and I liked going there every day.”
That wasn’t until April, though, close to the end of her freshman year. So nearly a year had passed since Borden has last trained gymnastics. However, that didn’t stop her from getting her skills back—particularly on bars and beam, her favorite events growing up. Illini gymnastics alum and Flippin’ Illini coach Sarah Lyons noticed how quickly Borden's skills were returning and suggested that she email Illinois women’s gymnastics head coach Nadalie Walsh about trying to join the team.
“It always nagged me at the back of my head, Sarah saying ‘You should try to email them. Just give it one more shot if it’s something that you want to do,'” Borden said.
After more thought, she felt she didn’t have enough to show Walsh and the coaching staff, so she went home and trained for the summer at her old club gym, Legacy Elite. While she trained over the summer, Borden took the leap and emailed Walsh. She told Walsh about how she was on the comeback trail after taking a year off from the sport, hoping to one day join the team, and if the coaching staff didn’t mind, she’d like to send them updates of her progress. Walsh replied and said they were very interested to see Borden’s progress.
After more summer correspondence, Borden asked Walsh if she could have a tryout. The coaches didn’t get back to Borden right away, as they had to figure out if that was even possible. So Borden was in and out of the gym, not consistently training as she awaited their response.
Eventually Walsh did get back to her, and Borden would get a 10-day tryout period at the start of the 2018-19 school year while the team was still in offseason and in unofficial practice. Because she mainly focused on training bars and beam, those were the events Borden showed the coaching staff during her tryout. All of her skills were there, but the consistency wasn’t. Walsh said Borden had all of her basics on those events. But it wasn’t enough.
After seeing her tryout, Walsh said Borden had a lot of potential. But when the coaching staff added up how many gymnasts they had on each event, they realized the roster was already pretty large. So Walsh decided it would be best for Borden to keep training with the Flippin’ Illini.
However, Walsh still wanted her around.
“I was really just impressed with her as a person, her character, and her gymnastics definitely was unique,” Walsh said. “But I just thought she had a ton of potential where if she works just a little bit on cleaning up and getting back into gymnastics, it would work out.”
So Walsh offered her a manager position with the team. Although she wouldn’t be putting on an Illinois leotard, Borden was excited and interested in the role, because she liked the team and wanted to keep working with them. She even knew some of the varsity gymnasts prior to her tryout, because she competed with some of them in Region 5.
Starting her managerial duties near the beginning of November, Borden joined former Illini gymnast and current undergraduate assistant coach Grace Gough in helping the team at practices with mats and springboards. On top of classes and attending whatever practices she could, Borden continued to train with the Flippin’ Illini, still hoping to one day make the varsity team. Lyons and current Illinois junior gymnast Rae Balthazor helped coach her at club practices.
Fast forward a few months later to Feb. 11, 2019: Borden had been a manager for the Illinois women’s gymnastics team for a few months, continued her gymnastics training and kept updating the coaching staff with videos of her progress. That night, Borden emailed a practice video update of herself to Walsh, saying that she was going to compete in a club meet that weekend and that she hoped she was still being considered for the team.
“When she sent the videos, the level of confidence that kind of came through her beam routine was incredible,” Walsh said of Borden’s update. “She was extremely sure of herself, and you can see it through a video. That was something that jumped out at me immediately.”
The next morning Borden received an email confirming that the coaching staff had seen her email and video update. Later that day, Walsh called Borden to ask her if she’d like to join the team this year.
Borden said yes and was “very emotional” about her hard work paying off. Meanwhile, Walsh was impressed about where her hard work had gotten her.
“She actually took the suggestions that we gave her for her new jump combination and the different skills she was doing,” Walsh said. “She took those suggestions from the fall and worked so hard to get them exactly where she would need them to be to put her very strong beam routine together.”
The Illini were already halfway through the regular season, so why add someone to the team right then? Why not wait so Borden could compete a full season?
“We had lost a few athletes that were key players for us this season,” Walsh explained. “Freshman Mallory Mizuki was a beam and bars stud [who’s out for the season], [senior] Julia Hutcherson tearing her ACL and then having [junior] Rae Balthazor go down. The stars kind of aligned in the sense that Rachel looked great, and we have a need. So let’s fill that need right now and let her come in and reward her for her hard work, because I think her story is pretty incredible.”
Adding a new member to the team so late in the season could be weird and affect the team dynamic, but that wasn’t a problem for the Illini. Borden already knew the gymnasts and had worked with them in practice. Walsh also thought getting to add a new member halfway through the season spoke volumes about the program.
“I saw so much confidence in my team and their heart and their trust in us as coaches that I knew if we just decided to bring [Borden] on, everybody would be really excited and really happy for her and happy for all of us,” Walsh said. “I feel like the culture that we’ve built here in the last year and a half really paved the way for us to be able to make a change like this and for everybody to be excited about it. I didn’t want to wait.”
A few days later on Feb. 15, just one day before she put on an Illinois leotard for the first time, Borden had her first practice as a University of Illinois student-athlete. But even though she had been to practices before and had watched the team train, she still had nerves.
“I was a little bit more nervous, because I didn’t want to bomb my first practice,” Borden said. “I didn’t know what to expect assignment-wise because when I tried out it was summer. They didn’t have set assignments. So coming in, I didn’t know what to expect.”
When she walked into the gym, her nerves quickly went away. The team was very welcoming, greeting her hello, helping her relax and feel like part of the team.
Meanwhile, gymnastics fans all over the world were watching, in awe of the beam routine Borden sent Walsh that Monday night that ultimately landed her a spot on the team.
The next day Borden joined the team at an away meet; not only was it her first away meet with the Illini, but it was only her first meet as an official member of the team. Borden got to enjoy the bus ride to Iowa with her new teammates as they sang karaoke, ranging from High School Musical to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” experiencing the energy of the team.
But it wasn’t until later when they were in the arena getting ready that it all felt real and like her hard work had paid off.
“It was very surreal,” Borden said. “It didn’t really hit me until I put on the leo that I was with the team, competing with the team, at Iowa. It was a little bit emotional. I was like ‘Oh my lord. Oh my gosh. I’m here.’ I didn’t really have a set thought going through my head.”
As announced by the Illinois women’s gymnastics team’s Twitter and Facebook pages, Borden was in the projected beam lineup for its meet against Iowa. However, she didn’t end up competing as the second gymnast on beam and exhibitioned instead.
“We were going to compete her, but when we got to the warmup, to be honest, I was kind of reading the atmosphere of the whole scene, not just her,” Walsh said. “In that moment, I felt the team was watching more to see what she would do instead of watching, being confident, knowing what she was going to do. And I didn’t feel like that was the right environment for her to go out there with her team kind of watching with curiosity instead of watching with expectation.
“To me, it’s important to honor the whole team and not just the individual, and I think that she got best of the both worlds: she got to do a routine and the team got to have their best team beam [so far] with Kylie [Noonan] in that week.”
Borden agreed and understood the decision.
“I’m grateful for it, because it did give me experience without as much pressure on myself to make it,” Borden said.
Even though it was an exhibition, she was still nervous. But it didn’t show.
Borden hit her exhibition beam routine with ease, performing without a single balance check, competing with no major deductions. What helped her was her teammates who competed before her.
“Preparing for it, I was just watching all the girls get up and hit their routines and look absolutely stunning, and there were huge scores,” she said. “And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to hit my routine.’”
Her first official competitive NCAA routine came one week later at the Big Five Meet at Elevate the Stage, Toledo on Feb. 23. After the Illini’s usual beam leadoff, Haylee Roe, suffered an injury that put her in a boot, Walsh decided Borden would lead off on the event. Beam, however, was the team’s first event of the evening, so she would lead off the entire meet for the Illini.
Borden said she was “so excited” to be in the beam lineup. But during the touch warm-ups, it was clear Borden was nervous. She had some trouble hitting her difficult, unique acro series of a front aerial front handspring.
“I tried to focus on what I knew how to do, but being on the podium for the first time was different,” Borden said of her warm-up.
During her routine, her nerves and inexperience showed. When Borden went for the front aerial for her acro series, she couldn’t connect it to the front handspring. However, she was quick on her feet, aware that not having an acro series would hurt her start value.
“After I missed my first [acro] series, I was upset,” she said. “But instead of dwelling on the fact that I messed up the first time, I was motivated to make the second one.”
And she did make the second one.
Borden went back and repeated the front aerial and connected it to a front handspring, which was connected to a sissone. She had some trouble on her full turn and back walkover, but she made it through, staying on the beam, and finished with a strong front full dismount.
“I wasn’t thrilled with my performance, but [it] was nice to get my first real meet under my belt,” Borden said. “I want to focus more on improving my mental game and not letting the nerves get to my head.”
Since Borden was added to the roster, the Illini have competed only at away meets. Borden will compete in her first home meet at Huff Hall in Champaign, Illinois, Friday, March 1, when Illinois takes on No. 6 Denver. And she won’t be down on the floor wearing Nike shoes and an Illinois gymnastics t-shirt, moving mats and setting springboards.
This time, and from here on out, Borden will be competing in an Illinois leotard, trying to do the best she can do for her team.
“After competing for the first time, I’m excited to go out and compete again,” Borden said. “Competing was one of the things that I missed the most when I stopped my freshman year. I’m excited about the new opportunities to come and I can’t wait to see where me and my new team will go.”