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Freshman Takes Big Leap, Competes Individually at NCAA Championships

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By Maria Evangelou, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The NCAA Championships on the schedule means the biggest weekend in collegiate gymnastics is here, and there will be a Nittany Lion present to represent the Blue and White.

Freshman Lauren Bridgens advanced to the NCAA Championships after tying for third with an all-around score of 39.200 at Penn State's NCAA Regional Championships meet on April 7. Bridgens' scores throughout the day landed her the privilege of traveling to nationals, and she will be competing as an individual, separate from her own squad, alongside the Arkansas gymnastics team.

The freshman from Maryland has had one incredible rookie season.  During her first year as a Nittany Lion, Bridgens was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week five times, tallied the first perfect 10 on the uneven bars in program history in a meet at BYU, and won 14 titles. She was also named a First Team All-Big Ten in early March. Most recently, Bridgens garnered regular season All-America honors from the National Association of College Gymnastics Coaches for Women (NACGC/W)

Despite the prestigious competition fast-approaching, the team and coaching staff have full confidence in Bridgens. Her confidence as an athlete and successes have proven her worthy of the honor.

"Lauren's a really level-headed kid," head coach Sarah Brown said. "As long as she's having fun, she's going to compete really well. I do think it's going to be a little more nerve-wracking for her, because she doesn't have her team and her best friends there to support her, but I think the staff is going to do a good job making sure that she can stay mellow and flexible. Competing as an individual is challenging, but I'm excited to be rotating with Arkansas. I know that they're going to be welcoming and incredibly encouraging to her, so I hope that she creates new friendships and feels like she's a part of a team in a way,"

Competing as an individual can seem like an intimidating feat, especially when traveling to an unfamiliar location, but Bridgens seems level-headed and ready.

"I don't think she's going to have a hard time with at all," Brown said. "As soon as she gets out on the competitive floor I think she's going to do her thing and hold her own. She belongs at the national championship and I know that she's not going to be intimidated by the gymnastics being done there because she's proven herself throughout the entire season." 

"I feel even more excited going into the next three years knowing how much we can accomplish," Bridgens said. "We have a lot of potential, and it makes me super excited for the future. I don't really know a lot of girls on Arkansas' team, so I'm hoping that they'll welcome me with open arms so I can make a lot of new friends." 

An individual competitor's training varies from her normal practicing, so Bridgens' coaches and teammates are making sure the gymnast is supported entirely and warming up properly, as her warm-up time will be different in competition mode.

"They have been amazing," Bridgens said. "They have all been coming in every day and supporting me and trying to put a little bit of pressure on me in practice so that I'm prepared going into the meet. Our trainers have been getting me treatment every day, so everybody has been doing everything they can, and that's part of why I'm so excited to go and represent Penn State." 

While this is a big meet for the freshman, she is no stranger to intense meets. 

Prior to becoming a Division I collegiate athlete, Bridgens competed for a prestigious club team, and performed in Level 10 competitions and Junior Olympic Nationals among other high-level competitions. 

"She's been a part of large competitions before, but I think being up on the podium at the Big Ten championship was a really great preparation for her going into nationals," Brown said. "It's going to be something she can take back to the team and share with them so that they can get excited about their future and hopefully get the entire team there next year." 

"I feel like they prepared me a lot, because obviously there is a little bit of pressure going into a higher-level meet, but also competing at a high level before college will help me stay calm," Bridgens said."  

Bridgens admits it will be bittersweet without her team by her side, but she knows they're there in spirit.  She looks forward to sharing her experience with her teammates and hopes to return to encourage her team and hopefully see the national championships in the coming years. 

"My mindset going in is just to learn a lot," Bridgens said. I'm going more for the experience. I obviously want to do my best, but I also want to have fun and learn things that I can bring back to the team." 

While Brown has been to NCAA Championships as a former gymnast, this will be her first time taking the floor at such an event as a coach. Her excitement for Bridgens shines through.

"Its an amazing event. The way the whole championship is run from the way the practice and competition is held. I think being in the arena and seeing that is just going to make her hungrier for the future," Brown said. "As a staff, we've worked really hard to get to. I'm honored to be there and proud of Lauren, and I think it's going to be a great wrap up to the year, but we're already excited looking toward the future and getting ready for next year." 

Bridgens has a lot to look forward to post-competition as well. She will stay the next day following the championships to observe the Super Six competition, comprised of some of the most skilled and elite gymnasts in the nation, including many Olympians. 

"That's the goal, to be one of the top teams, so I'm kind of going to be fan-girling a little bit at that point!" Bridgens said. "It's going to be so much fun and such a crazy experience."

As they put the finishing touches on Bridgens' training and preparations, the Nittany Lions are looking forward to what the future holds. 

 "I think this speaks volumes as to what we have upcoming for this entire team and where our level of talent is," Brown said. "Lauren has been leading the team as a freshman this entire season athletically, but I would love to see her emerge as more of a vocal leader. Her class in general is really strong, so I think our future is really bright and Lauren is kind of leading the way for that."

Bridgens will take the floor with Arkansas at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis on April 20.

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