Texas-born and raised, gymnast Susan Jackson is a perfect Tiger now

PHOTO COURTESY: LSU athletics.

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of former LSU athletes that are part of the Class of 2022 being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches on June 25th).

By: Scott Rabalais

Written for the LSWA

In her entire gymnastics career at LSU, Susan Jackson never got a perfect 10.

For her former coach, that just doesn’t match the recollections she has of one of the best LSU’s program ever had.

“In my memory she’s a 10,” D-D Breaux said. “So many incredible performances in the clutch.”

In a program whose history is filled with glittering stars, Jackson’s accomplishments shine brightest. She’s the only three-time NCAA individual champion ever at LSU, and to date the only Tiger to win the coveted NCAA all-around title, in addition to a pair of Southeastern Conference titles and 12 All-American honors.

“She was groundbreaking for a program that wasn’t really ranked, that really didn’t stand out like we do now,” said McKenna Kelley, another former LSU All-American who like Jackson grew up in Houston and trained at the same gym. “She helped build that. She’s one of the many reasons eyes have been drawn to LSU, and the reason that we’re at another level.”

Jackson will be one of nine athletes and coaches enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame June 23-25 in Natchitoches. Three contributors are also part of the Class of 2022. For participation opportunities and information, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.

She will be just the second person associated with LSU gymnastics to be so honored, following  Breaux in 2017. Centenary’s Kathy Johnson-Clarke, captain of the 1984 USA Olympic gymnastics team and a double medalist, was the first LSHOF inductee from the sport in 1996.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Jackson, who was alongside her coach during the induction festivities five years ago.

Like a lot of gymnasts, Jackson started at a very young age. In her case, age 3.

“I was a pretty obnoxious toddler,” she said. “I was swinging from closet rods and balance beaming on the back of the couch. To save the house and myself from destruction, my parents put me somewhere with the safety of mats and coaches who could supervise me.

“I watch videos now of when I was 3 at the gym close to home. The form I had on my back handsprings was perfect.”

By age 6, Jackson was doing gymnastics competitively. Around age 9 or 10, a gymnastics judge at a meet in Texas advised Karen and James Jackson to get their daughter in a more advanced program commensurate with her skills.

Jackson started training at Stars Gymnastics in Houston with the goal of competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics. By 11 she was doing gymnastics at the elite level, and by 12 she made the U.S. National Team.

Kelley also trained at Stars. Along the way, Jackson ended up babysitting McKenna and all three of her sisters, daughters of 1984 Olympic All-Around gold medalist Mary Lou Retton.

“Susan is special,” Retton said. “Not only was she one of the best gymnasts in LSU history, but she is such a loving and kind human being. She was such an inspiration to all four of my daughters.”

Jackson would finish fourth in the 2005 Elite National Classic in the all-around, fifth in the 2001 USA Championships and was third in the 2000 Junior Pan-American Games. Jackson didn’t quite make it to the Olympics, but as a teenager she started being recruited by a host of top college programs.

April Burkholder, a junior training partner from Houston and another future LSU NCAA champion, went to Baton Rouge and tried to convince Jackson that’s where she should attend college.

Jackson’s reply? “Never.”

“It wasn’t one of the top schools for gymnastics at the time,” she said. “But they started recruiting me, and it was about how the coaches treated me. I felt they cared about me as Susan, not just the athlete.”

Current LSU coach Jay Clark tried to recruit Jackson to Georgia, then the nation’s top program, when he was an assistant coach there. But Jackson quickly decided that wasn’t her path.

“I don’t want to sound cocky, but I wanted to go to a program where I could help, not go to a

Georgia, which had been national champions for the past five years,” she said.

When Jackson arrived at LSU, it was to a program that had never managed to get over the hump nationally. The Tigers perennially came up short of the Super Six, as the NCAA finals were known then (the top four make it to the championship meet now), with 18 national appearances but no trips to the finals to show for it.

But along with another of LSU’s greatest gymnastics champions, Ashleigh Clare-Kearney Thigpen, the Tigers finally made their drive to the top. Along the way, Jackson and Clare-Kearney Thigpen pushed each other to even greater heights.

“We were both very competitive,” said Clare-Kearney Thigpen, LSU’s winningest gymnast with 114 individual titles including two NCAA championships in 2009 on floor and vault. “When you have someone of that caliber on the team with you, it pushes you to be your best. To continue working to get that half, quarter, tenth of a point you can get for the team.”

In 2008, Jackson and Clare-Kearney led LSU to its first Super Six appearance, with the Tigers finishing in fifth place overall. Jackson won her first NCAA individual title, taking the vault championship with a 9.8563 average score.

In 2009, the Tigers made it back to the Super Six and finished sixth overall, with Clare-Kearney Thigpen winning the NCAA vault and floor championships. The Tigers came up short of the Super Six in 2010, Jackson’s senior year, but she stole the show individually. In a year where she tied the single-season school record for most vault titles (12) and set a record for most all-around titles (11, surpassed by Sarah Finnegan in 2019 with 14), she won the NCAA balance beam and all-around titles with scores of 9.9625 and 39.625, respectively.

“I remember sitting with D-D in her office talking about my goals” before the 2010 season, Jackson said. “She said, ‘This could be your year, your chance in the all-around,’ and we kind of put our heads together early on.

“All season long I won probably every all-around title there was. That helped me gain the confidence that I could do it going into that last meet.”

Jackson went on to win the 2010 Gymnastics Honda Award and the 2010 AAI Award, considered the Heisman of women’s college gymnastics given to the nation’s top senior. A national runner-up on beam that year as well, she was also named SEC gymnast and athlete of the year.

“Along with ACK, they were the two that sort of helped this program break through,” Clark said. “She was an incredibly dynamic athlete, someone we still talk about here in terms of the standards we have.”

Despite all Jackson’s success, building to the point where she proved her dominance in Friday night dual meets and in championship settings often took a lot of work.

“Susan had that compact little body and very, very strong legs,” Breaux said. “A solid all-around athlete. But she could get a little squirrely in the head and sometimes she’d come into the gym and she couldn’t vault. She and Bob (Moore, former LSU assistant coach) had a special level of patience with each other. He could bring her through those challenging moments, and by the end of the week she was back doing great gymnastics.”

Moore, LSU’s vault specialist during his lengthy career, said he and Jackson “hit it off from Day 1. I wanted this to be a partnership. Susan bought into it. I think her soul was looking for something to help her figure it out.

“A lot of times we were working out and she’d look at me and start to run and then stop. I wouldn’t say a word. I knew she was struggling. I’d let her alone for two turns then finally say, ‘You’ve got this, kid.’

“She was quite the athlete. You knew it. You knew the sky was the limit for her. Once she set her mind to it, it was going to be lights out.”

“I was a little bit of a mental case,” Jackson said of herself, “especially when it came to vault. I wouldn’t really practice. I had a lot of fear in doing a skill. Gymnastics is scary, trying to run into a stationary item (like the vault table) and flip full speed over it.”

Jackson would find ways to challenge herself to get the work in.

“I’d have to make bets with people I could do something,” she said. “’If I don’t do this vault, I’ll give you $10.’ I probably owe Bob a million.”

After LSU, Jackson performed all over Europe with Cirque du Soleil, eventually visiting 37 countries over 2½ years. Today, Jackson works as a business developer for an industrial contractor in Houston, relocating from Baton Rouge early this year.

Jackson said she felt like a bit of an outsider when she came to LSU, but the honor of being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame helps make her feel forever connected to this state.

“If you know Texans, we’re very proud,” she said. “They say you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl. I was mistaken in that. Louisiana is something special. It’s half of me now.”

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