Angie Leonard was delighted as a high school senior to have been signed to an NCAA letter of intent by defending NCAA gymnastics champion University of Utah. So she and her mother made up a big box of Christmas presents for people who wouldn't be her teammates for another year.
There was a team present, and for each individual, Leonard and her mom, Sandy, decorated Coke bottles and filled them with red-hot candies because the team was sizzling, on its way to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1994 and '95.Each year since then, the Leonards have spent Angie's Christmas break making team presents. Each year was something different. Till this past Christmas, Angie's last as a Ute gymnast. For '98 presents, Leonard returned to the bottles filled with red hots for her gifts.
The Utes haven't won the NCAA title since '95, when Leonard first sent the red-hot presents. In '99, Utah may well have a team that could do it again, especially with the NCAAs in the Huntsman Center April 22-24, so the red-hot bottles were kind of a back-to-the-future wish.
Having nationals at home makes Saturday's last regular-season meet, Senior Night, easier to handle, said Leonard, one of three seniors who'll be honored before the always-emotional 7 p.m. meet with BYU.
Utah will still have to qualify to the national championships by placing first or second in a regional meet April 10, but it has never not qualified, so Leonard and fellow seniors Sarah and Molly Northrop should have three meets left in their careers.
"I'm definitely going to miss it," said Leonard about gymnastics, which has been her life since she was 5, growing up in California. She moved to Arizona to train as a teenager, and the family soon followed. "It's going to be hard, but it's kinda time. My body's taking its toll. My mind could do gymnastics forever, but not my body," said Leonard.
In fact, this is one of the most banged-up senior classes Utah's had. Leonard competed all through her junior season with a number of injuries and had off-season shoulder surgery. Just getting back into shape from that, she hurt her neck in January and lost more training. She's missed the past two meets (except for a 9.95 on bars at Oregon State) with a sore back. She fractured the back as a high school sophomore and still has ligament and disc trouble.
The Northrop careers have been limited with shin, Achilles, knee and tricep difficulties that have held Molly to two events, Sarah to one, this season.
Yet all three seniors have made significant contributions. As a freshman, Sarah stepped cold into two events at the NCAA Championships when Traci Sommer had that frightening fall on bars at Alabama and placed 12th in the NCAA all-around. Last year, her season-best scores on bars came at nationals. Molly, in only her second college all-around, scored 39.075 at the NCAAs as a soph. In '98, she was sixth in NCAA bars and tied her career-best on bars in team qualifying, when it was needed most. The twins are also big on gift-giving to teammates.
Leonard's legacy is high-level consistency. She has hit (not fallen) 90 percent of her career 173 routines. She's hit 46 of 50 bar routines (92 percent) and scored 39+ 18 times as an all-arounder with a career-best of 39.625 in '98, when coach Greg Marsden asked her to perform weekly despite injuries because Utah didn't have the depth it does now.
The team captain is a big fan favorite whose whole family plus grandparents and boyfriend will be there Saturday, when Leonard is expected to go all-around, injuries willing -- and maybe even if they're not.
"Are you kidding?" said Marsden. "It's her senior meet. If she was in a cast and bleeding from the aorta, she'd find a way to go all-around."
Though she shines brightly for the fans and loves the crowd's roar, Leonard came to Utah as a youngster so quiet she perplexed Marsden, a student of psychology who usually knows exactly what to say and when to say it to his athletes. "He was frustrated. He didn't know where I stood," she recalled. He would tell her things, "and I would stare at him," she said.
A three-year elite at the prestigious Desert Devils club, Leonard was used to having high-powered teammates ahead of her. She was just glad to be a Ute freshman until that first season ended strongly. She hit 36 of 40 routines in '96. All six of her scores at nationals counted toward Utah's team total. Her season highs on three events came on NCAA Super Six night.
That changed Leonard, gave her confidence and identity. "After seeing what I was capable of, I trained harder and had a different attitude," she said. "I came back to do what I knew I could. Greg and I got along better. I started talking, and we got a lot cleared up, and I had a lot of fun."
"Starting her sophomore year, she really got it figured out," said Marsden. "She came on extremely strong and developed into a crowd favorite. It was a coming-of-age. From that point, she was one of the stars."
As a sophomore, Leonard went into the postseason ranked fifth among NCAA all-arounders. She won 24 regular-season event titles, scored 10.0 on bars, was NCAA Midwest Regional all-around champ and was a first-team All-American on bars and vault. Last year, she continued as a national force, repeated her bars All-American status and scored 9.95 to tie for first on bars on team-qualifying night at the NCAAs.
She'd hoped to upgrade more this season, but even with little training she's increased her difficulty on floor exercise and has only one miss in 10 bar routines. Her last two all-arounds were 39.50 and 39.375. She has ranked as high as sixth in NCAA all-around, ninth on bars and 10th on floor exercise and is currently tied for 10th nationally on bars and tied for 16th on floor.
Following her last nationals, Leonard will work on completing studies to become a high school health teacher, following her teacher/mother's footsteps.