Welcome to the ninth category of our Tiger Rag High Five, the best-ever gymnast.
A 15-member media panel with a collective 582 years of sports journalism experience picked LSU’s five best athletes, coaches, moments, and individual game and season performances in 21 categories covering all present and past sports.
Voters on the panel were provided information of six to 10 nominees and were asked to rank one through five. The panel voters could also write-in their own candidates.
Scoring was tallied as 5 points for a first-place vote, 4 for second-place, 3 for third-place, 2 for second place and 1 for last-place. Ties were not broken.
LSU gymnastics has won no national titles, but has finished second four times (all since 2014). The Tigers have won four SEC championship meet titles and two SEC regular season championships (the SEC just began awarding a regular season title in 2017).
The winner of the best-ever LSU gymnast is. . .
Rheagan Courville 51 points (5 first-place votes)
2. Sarah Finnegan 41 (4)
2018 and 2019 SEC Gymnast of the Year
3. Susan Jackson 36 (2)
2010 SEC Female Athlete of the Year, won NCAA all-around title
4. Ashleigh Claire-Kearney 34 (2)
Won 114 career individual titles including the NCAA vault and floor
5. Ashleigh Gnat 31
Won 2017 NCAA floor exercise, had four SEC championship career victories
Here’s Courville’s story:
Many athletes struggle when they retire from competitive sports.
It’s an empty feeling. There’s no longer the roar of the crowd or the thrill of victory or banding together with teammates.
Five seasons removed from the final event of her 17-year gymnastic career that began when she was five years old, Rheagan Courville is as full speed today as she was from 2012 to 2015 when she took LSU’s program to the next level.
“I miss it all the time, but I’m still involved in the sport,” said the 27-year old Courville, a Baton Rouge native who balances being a regional salesperson for GK Elite Gymnastics apparel along with creating choreography for gymnasts and also giving clinics and lessons. “I could not quit cold turkey. I just feel I’ve always been invested it, I felt like I still had a lot to offer.”
Especially someone who was a 23-time All-American who won 95 career titles, including two NCAA national champion vault titles and five SEC individual titles.
And also, someone crowned as the greatest Tiger in LSU’s enviable gymnastics history by the 15-person Tiger Rag Magazine High Five selection committee.
Courville’s love of gymnastics began when she watched a neighbor doing cartwheels in her front yard.
“I couldn’t stand that she knew how to do something I thought was cool,” Courville said, “and I didn’t know how to do it.
“So, I got invited to a birthday party at her gym. It was such a tease because you get to do like three of the events. But you see all this other cool stuff in there and you’re like, `Wait, I’ve got to come back and do that.’
“I was addicted to learning new things. I fell in love how challenging gymnastics was mentally and physically. I’ve always been a perfectionist. Striving for perfection does so much to your personality. When you finish an event and you feel like it was perfect, but the scoring doesn’t reflect, it’s like `OK, I have to start from scratch to re-evaluate what I’m doing why you don’t like it visually.’
“There’s so many aspects to it, it makes you want to have these long hours in the gym because you really need all of that time to perfect it. I felt gymnastics was something I could excel in that was extremely precise. It made me feel special.”
Courville discovered the loneliness of being groomed as an individual elite gymnast striving to eventually get to the Olympics wasn’t for her.
She had a chance to be coached by Liang Chow, who trained 2008 Olympic vault champion Shawn Johnson (who also won three silver medals) and 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas.
Chow insisted he could “do much with me,” Courville said. But she didn’t want to move to Iowa to train with Chow. The homebody wanted to compete for LSU, her hometown team.
“I knew if I continued my elite career there would be a lot more hours and more wear and tear on my body,” Courville said. “I was craving accomplishing something being part of a team. I also thought the social aspect of being in a college program fit me.”
Courville, who graduated from University High in 2011, had been enthralled every time she attended an LSU home meet in the Maravich Assembly Center. She loved the high energy and the big crowds, but said she went there solely to watch Tigers’ gymnast Ashleigh Clare-Kearney.
“I had myself glued on ACK,” said Courville of Clare-Kearney, who in 2009 became the first LSU gymnast to win two titles (the vault and the floor exercise) in a single NCAA championship meet. “She was really what had me interested in LSU. The program wasn’t as energetic and competitive and exciting before her. She commanded everybody’s attention. She had so much swagger, I was just enthralled watching her.”
“That’s something I wanted. I wanted to feel the way she captivated me, I wanted to do that to other people. I tried to figure out how to put the flair she had into my gymnastics. She taught us all how to engage with a crowd. Her confidence and energy were addicting.”
Courville also connected with longtime LSU head coach D-D Breaux, who got a commitment from Courville at an early age.
“Rheagan had a great, graceful natural talent,” Breaux said. “She was very flexible, her bones were very light, and her muscles were very long and lean. She was quick and powerful. I enjoyed coaching her and being around her.
“She had a great sense of humor. I always felt like when we and the other coaches were in the gym with her, there was a real connection. She had a tremendous personality, she filled a room with her laughter.”
When Courville arrived at LSU in the fall of 2011, she had suffered injuries to her back and a foot and had broken a pinky finger. Breaux devised a training plan that kept Courville healthy enough to compete in 53 of 57 all-around competitions in her career.
“It was a perfect plan,” Courville said. “I really spaced out my training well. I always felt ready to go.”
There’s no doubt Courville still attacks the day, especially when she’s training aspiring gymnasts.
“I have an outlet now to still get my creativity out there,” Courville said. “I’ll finish a week where I’m in the gym for five days and I’m like, `It felt so good to be out there. I really miss that.’ A part of me will always be in gymnastics because it really is a huge part of who I am.”
All of these gymnast were great in their own right. But a couple that should have been there also are Jennifer Wood (1992-1993Z). She had nine perfect 10.00s during her career. The other person I think is missing is April Burkeholder (2003 – 2006) 2006 NCAA Beam Champion and recorded 8 10.00s. I know it would be hard to list all the greats but without mentioning who I would take off, I think these two should be on the top 5. I feel like this was a list from 2010 to present.
April Burkholder and Jennifer Wood were on our ballot. They didn’t make our top five. Believe me, everybody on the ballot was great. It was a tough category to pick five. Thanks for your comment.
Wow. It’s kind of mind boggling, to me, that April Burkholder wouldn’t have made this list. She’s statistically one of the most exceptional gymnasts, in school history. A couple of the entries are surprising, to say the least.
It’s a highly debatable list. Lots of great gymnasts in LSU history.