Feb. 8, 2012
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, July 28, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2011-12 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A number of gymnasts begin competing when they can crawl or walk. University of Iowa senior Jessa Hansen's gymnastics can be traced back to a flier.
In 1998, Hansen's parents -- Marc and Jody -- received a paper flier advertising the opening of Chow's Gym in Des Moines, Iowa. They tossed around the idea to Jessa and decided to investigate.
"We checked it out, and it took off from there," said Hansen.
Hansen began training at Chow's as an 8-year-old, around the same time as a 6-year-old named Shawn Johnson. Johnson became an Olympian... Hansen became a Hawkeye.
"Shawn and I started training at Chow's at the same time when he first opened," said Hansen. "We've known each other for a long time and have been training buddies for a long time, too."
Hansen adapted quickly to the sport, winning the all-around at the Iowa State Meet in 2005 and 2006. During her junior year of high school, she was runner-up on the beam at the 2007 Western Nationals, and the following year, she placed first on the floor and second in the all-around at the 2008 Region IV Championships.
It wasn't until she started receiving more correspondence via the mail that she began to think about what was next for her in the sport.
"I took it year-by-year," said Hansen. "I never really had college in mind until I started getting (recruiting) letters. Then I was like `Wow, maybe I can compete at the collegiate level.' I started to look around and take it to the next level."
Iowa head coach Larissa Libby knew of Hansen and Chow's training techniques.
"We were very familiar with her coaches," said Libby. "I was on the same international circuit competing with him (Chow) throughout the years, and I was aware of what her background would be with her training.
"You're always looking for things that won't be risks. Academically, she was certainly not a risk; personality, character, all those things were great. The last piece of the puzzle was her gymnastics and the level she could bring."
Libby knew that Hansen got a late start in the sport, so it was a matter of if she would be able to come on in time.
"Jessa was very talented, but started gymnastics quite late and is a late bloomer," said Libby. "That was the very smallest of risks; would her talent showcase itself quickly enough? I felt it was going to be a big difference from the first year to the fourth year, and it has definitely panned out that way."
While Hansen and Johnson were training for different futures at Chow's Gym -- Hansen for college and Johnson for the Olympics -- their daily competitions helped both of them succeed.
"We would push each other with the small things," said Hansen. "Through that, we would make each other that much better."
When Hansen joined the Hawkeyes in 2009, she started what would be a three-year evolution. She competed in every meet on the bar, beam and floor as a freshman before earning second-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. As a junior, Hansen tallied a first-team All-Big Ten accolade after winning six event titles throughout the year, including four on the floor. She set career-bests in each of the four events.
"Every year I gained more experience and more confidence," said Hansen. "This year I am taking it one meet at a time, focusing on doing my job every time. If I focus on that, the results will follow."
"She's the stability and that's everything," said Libby. "You look to a core group of people to build around, and she's the core of our team. In athletics, academics, in character in what she represents out there when she volunteers.
"She is the total package, and she is what we want people to think of when they think of Iowa gymnastics. Jessa Hansen is the representative of us."
Hansen is also the program's sole student-athlete from the state of Iowa, a distinction that gives her a badge of honor.
"I am proud to be an Iowan and to represent this state," said Hansen. "Besides Shawn and some elite girls at Chow's, gymnastics isn't huge in Iowa. It's great to represent gymnastics for the state."
Libby hopes to secure more Iowans into her program; she thinks Hansen's role with the Hawkeyes will help in making that happen.
"Jessa is our Shawn Johnson," said Libby. "She is our association with the state of Iowa and gymnastics. She has created a huge name for herself, as well as our program, what we represent inside and outside of the gym. We're very proud of everything she has done and that she's created this household name for both herself and the team."
During her senior campaign, Hansen has shouldered more of a leadership role on the team. This is especially important with six freshman and seven underclassmen among the 14-person roster.
"We liken her to the silent leader," said Libby. "She's best at it in a competition setting. She leads by example. She struggled with this as a freshmen and a sophomore -- she tended to get nervous, and it showed. Now she's fallen into a great role of taking on our young freshman class and making sure they are aware of what's appropriate and what's expected of them on the competition floor."
Hansen says she's the type of leader that likes to show rather than speak.
"Each one of us (seniors) has a special, specific role," she said. "Mine is to lead by example and to provide the team with a sense of stability, both athletically and emotionally. I will give the younger girls tips and advice, but my role is to show them how it is done."
When her career is completed, Hansen would like to continue in a sports media relations field. It is a logical next step for the journalism and mass communications major after she graduates in May. Her father, Marc, is a sports columnist for the Des Moines Register.
"He has not really pushed me in that direction," said Hansen. "He has fueled my desire for sports and sports media, but that's the extent of it.
"Sports have been a part of my life for so long. I would like to work on the other side of things when I graduate to help promote other athletes."
The Hawkeyes host the 2012 Big Ten Championships on March 24 inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The NCAA Regionals will be April 7, and the NCAA Championships take place in Deluth, Ga., on April 20-21.