LYNN HAVEN — Nikki Youd is part of a trend appearing across the sporting landscape nationwide.
Youd, a 16-year-old gymnast at Gymnastics Plus, has verbally committed to the University of Iowa as part of the Hawkeyes’ 2014 recruiting class. Still just a junior at Mosley, Youd is nearly a year and a half away from becoming the second Gymnastics Plus product on Iowa’s roster, when she will join current freshman Alie Glover.
Youd won all-around gold in her division and individual championships on the balance beam and on the vault at the Level 9 Eastern Championships in Landover, Md., last May. Her all-around score of 37.750 was the fifth-best total among dozens of gymnasts competing in eight Senior-level divisions. Steve Arkell, who coaches Youd with his wife, Sue, said that breakthrough performance enhanced Youd’s profile for prospective colleges.
“When she won Easterns last year, we got the word out,” he said.
Arkell said Hawkeyes coach Larissa Libby came to see Youd perform, offered her a scholarship and suggested Youd make an unofficial visit to Iowa City to see if the school and program were a fit. Youd, who said she intends to enroll in Iowa’s dentistry program, returned to Lynn Haven certain her decision was made.
“It’s a really good academic school, and the gymnastics were a great fit,” Youd said. “And the coaches are awesome.”
Youd admitted it feels strange that she has so much time ahead of her before she heads to Iowa — “I keep thinking I’m going this year,” she said — but she added that also gives her time to improve.
College teams compete with two all-around gymnasts at each meet and round out the roster with specialists. Arkell and Youd said Libby told them Youd already could contribute at Iowa, and she was recruited to contend for one of the two all-around positions. Until that day arrives, Youd will continue to add tweaks, turns and twists to each routine.
“She needs to update a few areas, like on the bar we can add a major release, and a twist on the vault,” Arkell said, noting the grind of the college season will require improved strength and conditioning, too. “She’s got all the beam stuff she needs. She looks good. We’ll just keep polishing her up.”
Youd now is competing in club gymnastics’ highest level — Level 10 — and she finished second in all-around scoring at the Tampa Bay Turners Invitational in mid-January. Arkell described Youd as “a little bit of a daredevil” unafraid to try new maneuvers or push her limits.
“At the upper levels, fear knocks a lot of kids out,” Arkell said. “It’s too scary. At Level 10 and up, the skills are a lot harder and there’s more anxiety. Some kids can’t handle it.”
Collegiate programs are jousting for a select group of gymnasts capable of performing at that level or beyond every year. Coaches pore over results from meets around the nation to unearth young gymnasts, like Youd, who compete at a high level and have just scratched the surface of their potential. Arkell said the University of Alabama, for instance, already has filled its 2015 recruiting class.
In football, Alabama and LSU each have offered a scholarship to Dylan Moses, an eighth-grader from Louisiana who is on track to graduate high school in 2017. Indiana offered a basketball scholarship to then-eighth-grader Eron Gordon last spring. Youd, too, garnered attention at a young age, and she is a reminder that coaches’ recruiting efforts extend well beyond soon-to-be high school graduates.
“When we took over this program, colleges were not recruiting so early,” Arkell said. “They were not recruiting when (kids) were sophomores. ... Coaches have their feelers out. If the kids are good, the colleges will find them.”
Youd is buoyed by her success last year, and she is targeting bigger, more important meets in her future — the future that remains before college, that is.
“My goal this season is to make it to nationals,” Youd said. “Level 10 is a whole different game, but making it to nationals would be huge.”