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From elite to college: Iowa State gymnasts find renewed love for the sport

Ana Irene Palacios and Laura Cooke both joined the Iowa State gymnastics team after competing at the elite level.

AMES, Iowa — If you've ever been to a college gymnastics meet, you've probably noticed the energy and excitement that radiates from the athletes. 

"I feel like totally. . . . chills," said Ana Irene Palacios, a junior at Iowa State. "But also, I feel like this is my time. This is my showtime. I've been practicing and I'm gonna show the world what I'm capable of."

"When you land at the end of your routine and you see your teammates standing around you and the smiles on their faces and looking at your coach and getting that reassuring head nod is like nothing you could really imagine," said Iowa State senior Laura Cooke.

 That energy spreads like wildfire throughout the building.

"I remember my first meet," Palacios said. "Everyone was shouting on the floor and in public and I was like, 'Oh my god. This is so different and I love it.'"

This type of environment is just one of many differences between elite and college gymnastics. 

Palacios, known as "Reenie" by her teammates, hails from Guatemala. Cooke is from England. 

Both have competed at the elite level, but it didn't take long for them to grow to love competing at the college level. 

"It was definitely a really nice change," Cooke said. "I absolutely adore competing in college and the big crowd is something I never thought I'd like but it's really fulfilling."

The emphasis on teamwork rather than individual success is another big difference between college and elite gymnastics. 

"Everything is about team," said Iowa State head gymnastics coach Jay Royane. "Every decision we make is for the greater good of the team. Not one specific individual."

For Palacios and Cooke, it's what makes college so enjoyable. 

"We are not just teammates, we are family and we help each other," Palacios said. "We are there for each other. We have each other's backs and I think that's really wholesome and that's what makes us a stronger team."

Both say competing in college has been a life-changing experience.

"It's for sure like revitalized my love for the sport in such a different way and I've created friends for life that I'm gonna invite to my wedding and that's something that's been a great opportunity for me for sure," Cooke said.

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