Dec. 7, 2011
Editor's Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa's Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
By NICK HEGLAND
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa head women's gymnastics coach Larissa Libby and her GymHawks are no strangers to the lime light. They stand out as incredible athletes who sacrifice time and effort to entertain with talents they've honed since they could walk. More important than their accomplishments in the gym is the continuous effort they put forth once the spotlights are turned off and it's time to give back to the community that has shown them so much support.
Libby has instilled a sense of humanitarianism in her student-athletes that has caused a ripple effect continuing to touch lives throughout the year. The GymHawks take part in community service projects including the annual Ponseti Races, hosting a haunted house each Halloween, 'Achieve Your Dreams' and bicycle helmet awareness campaigns in elementary schools and Light the Night.
"We're big into community service because it's important to me," said Libby. "It's important to show my student-athletes the many things that don't touch their lives. It gives them a different perspective and enables them to be more grateful - grateful to the city and state that gave them the opportunity to be here at a Division I university.
"It's for the fans that come out to watch them every weekend from January to April, their families and the people that aspire to be them. It's important for me to have our kids involved in a community that's so involved in athletics."
"At first it was me saying there are some events. Now if I don't say something they're asking, 'what about this and what about that?'. Every year they get deeper and deeper into it just because of the kids."
UI head coach Larissa Libby
The Ponseti Races are named after Iowa's own Dr. Ponseti who pioneered a non-surgical method in treating infant clubfoot, the most common genetic birth deformity. The 5K Ponseti Race kicks off a weekend of an International Clubfoot Symposium hosted in Iowa City. The GymHawks not only participate in the race, but interact with participants and clubfoot patients, offer help to make the event possible and raise awareness of the condition.
"The Ponseti Races are closest to our heart as we've had a connection with a young girl who suffered from clubfoot," said Libby. "She passed away in a plane crash on her way to what would be her last casting. It was the last time that she needed to be casted before she would walk again. It was devastating for us to have been close to it, watch her evolve and see her get to that point. We have stayed close and stayed involved."
The GymHawks have also spent time mentoring young students in elementary classrooms. In an 'Achieve Your Dreams' campaign, the student-athletes hung out with and read to the students, giving them a positive role model to look up to and emulate.
"Most of those schools are doing units on how to achieve your dreams so it kind of seemed fitting that we could talk about that in the classrooms," said Libby. "Our girls went into the classrooms, read them stories and just discussed how they achieved their goals."
Libby is most proud of the fact with what started as a small gesture of gratitude towards the Iowa City community has evolved into a number of service projects that her student-athletes are continuously looking to participate in.
"At first it was me saying there are some events," said Libby. "Now if I don't say something they're asking, 'what about this and what about that'. Every year they get deeper and deeper into it just because of the kids.
"I'm very pleased it has turned over as something that's important to them, not just to me. I'm glad that will carry on in their lives because that's outside of what we ask them to do. They're in the hospital with patients all the time. They are volunteering every chance they get, so it's nice for me to see that it's becoming important in their lives and that they're passing that tradition on to our younger kids."
The GymHawks have the athletic ability to inspire and motivate a crowd of all ages in the athletic arena, but more importantly is what they've grown to love doing outside of the gym. They continue to search for community service projects, knowing that it takes one event to change the life of a young fan. It's a small thing they're able to do that could make a big difference in a community that has given them so much.