Saturday night won’t just be the last home gymnastics meet of the season. It won’t just be that last meet of the regular season. It won’t even really be about No. 4 Utah coming to town.
Saturday night will be all about the seniors. Demetria Hunte, Chelsea Davis, Sarah Persinger and Whitney Kirby have spent four years competing in Stegeman coliseum, and it will all come to an end when the final pose is struck on floor and the final salute is given to the judges.
“When you finish a floor routine and you’re holding that last pose,” Persinger said. “I always make sure that I hold it for at least three, four seconds because the roar of the crowd is just something that if you don’t smile in that moment, then I don’t know what can make you happy.”
Although senior night for these four gymnasts has been four years in the making, many of the journeys started long before they first stepped foot in Athens. After being in a sport for nearly 20 years, it can be hard to say goodbye but for most, it’s time.
“I lay in bed at night thinking about it ending and then wake up and feel my body hurting,” Davis said. “I don’t know how I’m going to say goodbye to something that’s been my life for 19 years, but I know that my body is definitely ready. I’m just going to have to find a passion somewhere else.”
For Kirby the sport was yanked away from her too soon. Due to a torn rotator cuff, she decided to forego her redshirt season and call it quits on the activity that has defined her entire life since she was a young child.
“They don’t operate on shoulders like they used to and you may never get full range of motion back,” Georgia head coach Danna Durante said. “It’s finally better, but it just got to that point where your body’s telling you it’s time and that’s hard to hear.”
Back in 2012 when the coaching staff was in its first year, the members of this senior class were just sophomores and took the transition the hardest, according to Durante.
“They’ve all had different times where life is hard for them and there have been challenges in front of them,” Durante said. “Chelsea’s business-like approach like get out of my way, we’re going to work. Dee [is] just a sharp young lady. She didn’t compete a lot but she’s a huge part of this class and this team. And her just genuine love for everybody. Sarah, she’s a lover of people and she’s funny. Her southern accent gets me. Whit — this year has been a transition for her, going from what she’s done all her life to being on the side.”
The four will face another hardship in the coming months. Despite what most of the upperclassmen want to hear, there is life after gymnastics. And things don’t just stop after the lights are shut off at Stegeman for the final time. Apart from the postseason, each of the members of the senior class have plans for after graduation as well.
Hunte will go to London to work with her dad as a personal trainer before coming back in July and counseling kids as summer camp. Davis plans on entering grad school in August and eventually becoming a physical therapist.
For Persinger, the future isn’t as clear but she still knows the steps to take to get where she wants to be.
“I am kind of stepping into that big girl role, doing my resume, cover letters, applying for jobs, so it’s definitely different and maybe a little bit scary, but also very exciting,” she said. “I realize how much gymnastics has shaped me and this sport has just set me up for the rest of my life.”
Struggles and looming retirement aside, the class will leave an impression on those to come for quite a while, especially on the rising seniors preparing to take its place next year.
“I’ve learned to become a leader as soon as you can,” junior Brittany Rogers said. “They told us, your time at UGA is so short and to make the most out of it and have no regrets. That in itself shows what it means to be a leader and tell the rest of the team that life is short and to enjoy this.”
Durante has also been preparing the junior class of Mary Beth Box, Brandie Jay and Rogers to take on that leadership role in the coming months, taking is as a goal of her own to prepare them in the best way possible.
“We always ask a lot of the juniors,” Durante said. “They don’t have to be the leader or the one, but they’re in a position of authority whether they’re ready for it or not.
That group reminds me a little bit of Cat [Hires], Kaylan [Earls] and [Lindsey] Cheek because they’re all very different and they all bring something very different but together a very good mix.”
But what Rogers wants to take away from the senior class the most is a combination of all the four have to offer. While she knows she isn’t perfect and can’t always do what others ask of her, she has already begun working on improving herself for the sake of her team.
“I’ve tried [leading by voice] this season,” Rogers said. “I come across as stern to some people, but I feel like we needed that a little bit this season. I have to learn when to say things and when to hold back and when to lead by example and when to not lead by example. I really hope that people can see [I’m not a robot] and trust me and know that I’m in it for the right reasons too.”
So when the senior class runs out of the tunnel in Stegeman for the final time and hears its names announced over the loud speakers and the crowd’s roar, the group knows its leaving the future of the team in good hands.
“If anything, be confident in your skills and be confident in the way you approach things. And that’s something that everyone else will follow behind,” Hunte said.