Taylor Houchin pauses, taking a breath.
What would her legacy be?
The question lingers between us for a moment, and I imagine her considering the many successes she's had over the years.
Maybe it would be winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year or setting the Nebraska all-around record, or perhaps the time she came back from multiple injuries to take both the regional vault and bar titles.
“I just want people to remember me as someone who was always there and willing to help,” Houchin says.
Although the answer stuns me for a moment, I realize it’s exactly the sort of response I should have expected from the senior.
Houchin’s legacy began in 2017 when she put together one of the best freshman seasons Nebraska has ever seen. The first-year standout scored a 9.70 or higher in 46 out of the 51 routines she competed, setting the tone for a collegiate career that would prove invaluable for the Huskers.
Freshman year was all about getting her feet wet, Houchin tells me. She credits the 2017 senior class for helping her find her stride and transition from J.O. expectations to the new and exciting world of NCAA gymnastics.
Her sophomore year was a bit tougher, as Houchin was recovering from two knee injuries she suffered during the offseason. She still managed to help her team out by consistently contributing on bars until mid-season when she was cleared to return on the other three events. By the end of the year, Houchin was better than ever, boasting career highs of 9.90 or higher on all four events.
This was also the season in which Houchin saw her first of many 9.975s. It happened on vault and then again on bars, just one infinitesimal degree away from perfection.
That quarter of a tenth would haunt gymnastics fans across the country, especially when it came to Houchin’s vault. In 2019, towards the end of her third standout season, Houchin stuck a beautiful Yurchenko 1.5 that’s now been viewed more than 150,000 times on Twitter. The score? A 9.975.
The video garnered serious outrage from the gymnastics community, with fans and online critics calling it for what it should have been: a 10.0.
But the indignation didn’t end there, because just last weekend, the now-senior vaulted to near perfection again, notching another 9.975. The score was met with similar fury, and it’s easy to understand why. When a vault is so beautiful and perfectly stuck, what’s a quarter-tenth, really, in the scheme of things?
Houchin explained that one judge took off for direction on the vault from last season, meaning that a judge didn’t feel like it was straight enough. And then this past weekend, one of the judges deducted her vault for distance, since it didn’t quite land far enough away from the table.
Despite the collective online frustration, Houchin says she doesn’t let the scores bring her down.
“I kind of use it as motivation to keep getting better at what I do,” she tells me. “I want to keep getting better and better until a judge feels like they can give me a 10 for everything I’ve done.”
Improving her gymnastics is something Houchin has always taken seriously. This year, she wants to learn to be a little bit easier on herself and enjoy the moments she has left with the sport.
“When I stick a vault, I don’t have a really crazy reaction just because that’s just who I am,” she says. “I have very high standards for myself and so I honestly show more expression when I make a mistake than when I do something well, which is also something I want to work on my senior year— just being proud of myself and being happy in those moments, because that’s what I’m going to remember more than taking a step.”
Leadership is something else Houchin is focusing on for the 2020 season. She was nervous at the beginning of the school year, since seniors at Nebraska are expected to step up and shoulder a lot more team responsibility. But she once again credits the seniors that have come before her for preparing her for this new transition.
“I don’t feel like I’m underprepared, I feel like my seniors every year have taught me something different that I can kind of put into who I want to be as a senior,” she tells me.
And Houchin already has begun to put her own personal twist on this leadership role, like with the team’s motto, “All gas, no brakes.”
By the time the team got to Friday weights one day during preseason, they were exhausted. In an attempt to motivate the team, Houchin jokingly started yelling out phrases that football players would put on their Instagram captions. “All gas, no brakes” was one of those. It began ironically, but then it actually took.
“It’s about just not allowing ourselves to fall back and to always give it everything we’ve got as a team, because that’s what’s going to actually make the difference,” she says.
The motto also serves as an example of Houchin’s selflessness and dedication to the overall goals of her team, since the senior is indeed pumping the brakes a bit this year to remain healthy.
“By your senior year, your body really hurts,” she says with a hardened chuckle. “You really have to trust in your gymnastics and trust in all your training that you’ve done over the years and be OK with not doing as many numbers in the gym.”
The concept of “less is more” has been tough for Houchin, who “finds comfort in numbers.” But she knows this is what’s ultimately going to allow her to stay healthy and perform for Nebraska one last time.
The senior is also taking a similar approach to upgrades this season: team first.
“In the offseason I got ankle surgery so my ankle still isn’t quite back to the level that it was beforehand,” she says. “If I hit my routine now I can still contribute to the team in a big way, so I think I’ve been trying to take ‘me’ out of things and think about what can most help the team as far as upgrades go.”
So when I asked Houchin that final question, “What do you hope your legacy will be for Nebraska gymnastics,” she responded exactly as I should have expected her to.
It’s not about her scores or the skills she’s thrown or the awards she’s won, although there have been many. It’s also not about whether she’ll finally get that 10.0 on vault, either.
For Houchin, it’s about who she was as a teammate, and now as a leader.
“I hope that people can remember who I was as a person and the qualities that I hold,” she says. “I want people to remember me as loving and caring and genuine and just able to reach out and help people whenever they need it. I think that’s the most important part.”
These qualities will serve Houchin well in her future endeavors, which right now include joining Cirque du Soleil before settling down to teach high school English.
“I’m an English major and I want to teach high school English, which I can do anywhere at any time essentially, so that’s why I want to give the Cirque thing a try just to have fun with it while I still can,” she says.
But for now, her focus is on Nebraska.