Melissa Fernandez has made the most of her first two years competing on the University of Illinois gymnastics team.
This year, as a sophomore, Fernandez, a Eudora High grad, was a member of the first University of Illinois gymnastics team to make it to nationals.
“That was definitely our team goal to make it to nationals because we have never as a team in school history made it to nationals before. And being there was amazing,” Fernandez said. “It was overwhelming, but it was so much fun and so exciting.”
She also became the first individual in school history to advance to the NCAA Championships when she scored a 9.9 on the balance beam at regionals. While at the competition, Fernandez faced a star-studded field.
“I was pretty nervous because I was going to be competing by myself and I knew there were going to be ex-Olympians there,” Fernandez said. “And these were the top girls in the country.”
Fernandez advanced to the final round by tying for first. By then her nerves had subsided, she said. She went on to finish seventh overall.
“I just got up on the beam and did what I had been doing all season,” Fernandez said.
This year, Fernandez scored five first-place finishes on the balance beam and became the first gymnast in Illini history to be named first-team All-American on the balance beam. She also was named the team’s Most Improved Gymnast and Most Consistent Beam Performer and made the Big Ten’s all-academic team.
Illinois gymnastics coach Bob Starkell said Fernandez had shown steady improvement during her first two seasons, but could be even better next year as one of the veterans on the squad.
“Becoming an upperclassmen, Melissa will definitely be looked upon to contribute more than just her own gymnastics contributions,” Starkell said. “Becoming our first first-team All-American at Illinois, her teammates will look to her as a key leader. Melissa is a quiet leader and is working on being more vocal, but leading by example will be huge.”
Fernandez is also an example of how perseverance can pay off. Fernandez trained at Kansas Gymnastics and Cheer (KGDC) in Olathe, and, at one time, nearly gave up gymnastics. She offered some advice for those who want to pursue the sport.
“Obviously, the hard work paid off,” Fernandez said. “And I would never change my decision for anything. Gymnastics is a tough sport, but the benefits are great.”