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From cartwheels in the basement to nearly quitting, freshman Sarah Finnegan etches her name in gymnastics history

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Sarah Finnegan was born with a gift.

She was treasured with talent, dissimilar from nearly all gymnasts her age. The “most beautiful best beam worker” as LSU coach D-D Breaux now calls Finnegan, nearly called it quits. But, she never left the bright lights of performing. She used the spotlight as fuel. She lived in it, under it, loved it and now loves it, again.

She can perform skills other gymnasts have never been able to do, and for her, it’s always been easy, which made her three sisters rage in jealousy from head to toe.

As it all started, Finnegan’s pure, exquisite gymnastic talent was clear to her 18-month older sister, Hannah Finnegan, when she was a young girl.

“When she was younger, she would like to show off and our parents would tease like ‘you’re such a showoff, Sarah,’” Hannah said. “A lot of times I was jealous of her — of how great she was.”

With cartwheels, leotards, smiles, laughter and jealous sisters, Sarah’s career merely begun.

“Whenever I had friends over, she would always be doing cartwheels and she was always showing people what she could do,” Hannah said, laughing as she reminisced. “She’s always had natural talent. She was very good at a young age. Things came very easy for her.”

“I guess I was good at it,” Sarah laughs.

Sarah, a goal-oriented, humble, fairly quiet, yet enthused gymnast had to rally to find her new home, LSU.

“I really felt like I was supposed to go here,” Sarah said.

The first again, Sarah Finnegan

The four Finnegan girls couldn’t stop flipping inside the house. Their parents recognized their girls’ passion for gymnastics, quickly.

Linabelle Finnegan, Sarah’s mother, placed her group of young, flippy, always smiling girls in gymnastics for one reason: she wanted her children to be smart.

“When my older sister and I were growing up, my mom was reading and stuff and she read that swimming and gymnastics was were good for brain development,” Sarah said. “So we did swimming and diving, gymnastics and dance and all that, and I guess gymnastics stuck.”

Gymnastics in the Finnegan household started with Linabelle and Hannah, and not the year-and-a-half younger Sarah.

Her mom and eldest sister began with “Mommy and Me” classes, Sarah remembered.

“My sister was doing it, and I was like ‘I want to do what my older sister is doing,’” she said.

Gymnastics stuck with Sarah, with Hannah, with her younger sisters Jennah and Aleah, or with anyone who would give her a look so Sarah could show them her newest skill — normally, a fancy rendition of the cartwheel. From that point on, Sarah became a performer before a gymnast.

“When we were younger, we would always play ‘meet’ and we would pretend we were competing in our basement,” Sarah said.

Don Finnegan, Sarah’s father, was the only male in a house of five girls — all of whom were constantly doing cartwheels and flips in the house, excluding Linabelle.

“It was great fun,” Don said. “They’re all very active, and they all love gymnastics. They are all very, very competitive as they’re trying to out-do each other as far as the skills that they can do. It’s fun.”

As Sarah neared 13 years old, the introductory stages of her gymnastics reached its peak. Don and Linabelle saw their second-oldest daughter’s riveting passion grow through the years. They recognized her talent. They were willing to sacrifice for Sarah, as her talent was unmatched.

In 2008, Don and Linabelle packed up their seven-year home in St. Louis, Missouri, and moved roughly four hours away, closer to Kansas City.

“I was level 8 in 2008,” Sarah said of her last days in St. Louis. “I went to regionals and I saw them there and I was like ‘wow that team is really good and I want to get to the point.’”

That team, or club, was GAGE — Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs, Missouri — owned and coached by Al and Armine Barutyan Fong.

At first glance, Sarah saw their gymnasts were serious. They embodied greatness with every flick of their heel and point of their toe. Sarah matched their kind of talent at 13 years old.

When Sarah, and the other five Finnegans, visited GAGE, she knew she needed its help.

“I thought it was a really good fit for me,” Sarah said. “They were going to help me achieve my goals.”

From when it became feasible, Sarah, the goal-oriented young girl, became starved to compete in the Olympics. No one was going to stop her from chasing her dream, and she wasn’t going to be denied.

Gymnastics started to consume her life. She knew it. Al Fong knew it. Her family knew it.

When Al Fong met the then-13-year-old Sarah for the first time, he distinguished her as a gem, as the special, talented girl she once was in the family’s basement. He said he was lucky to have her in his gym.

“When she came in, she didn’t have a lot of gymnastics,” Al Fong said. “But she had an amazing amount of talent. She had a drive and a look to her, all the things that would make you say ‘oh this kid’s going to go somewhere.’”

To convert “going somewhere” to “went,” Sarah needed the Fongs help.

The next again, Sarah Finnegan-again-again, and almost never again

The year of the move, Sarah and Hannah began working at GAGE with Al and Armine, and she became a level 9, but that didn’t last for too long.

“The next year I made level 10,” Sarah said. “Then I tried out for elite and I was able to make the national team. From there, I went on my first international assignment, which was in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the Pan-Am Games.”

“It was cool watching her grow from a little girl through club, through a level 10 and through elite,” Hannah said. “She still has that natural ability. Some people were made for that sport, and I think gymnastics just comes so natural to her.”

After two years of training, Sarah received a chance to compete for the Team USA.

One goal was accomplished, Sarah made the team. But she wasn’t satisfied, this wasn’t the Olympics.

“Satisfied” was rarely a used thought of Sarah’s.

She was sent to Guadalajara “on assignment” as she remembered the week.

Coincidentally, Sarah crossed paths with her now-teammate, senior all-arounder Jessica Savona, in Mexico, but neither thought much of it. It was simply two girls, smiling as they were dressed during a break period in competition taking a group picture where Canada — Savona’s native nation — and the U.S. collided in September of 2010.

Savona/Finnegan Pan-American Games

Senior all-arounder Jessica Savona (far right) and freshman all-arounder Sarah Finnegan (second from right) pose during the Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in Sept. 2010. 

The Pan-American Games decided which international programs travel to London in the following two years for the 2012 Olympics.

Sarah got her first shot. She was able to compete on the national stage, cloaked in red, white and blue.

Along with the trip to Mexico, Sarah competed in multiple international and national competitions for the United States, including two trips to Italy with Team USA. She was always so busy.

Her years of Olympic training were as rough, and as strenuous, as any 15-year-old gymnast could handle. Her once inevitable Olympic future started to come into fruition.

It started paying off, but she didn’t mind the hard work anyway. She had one focus: achieving her goal. Al Fong could see it in her eyes. She was different.

“A lot of the athletes that come to our gym are driven,” He said. “They’re smart and cute and have talent. But Sarah was laser focused in what she’s trying to achieve. She looks you straight in the eye and listens to you and does everything you ask her to do.”

The Fongs understood their purpose: to drive Sarah to achieve her dream.

Al Fong, an established former LSU gymnast and alumnus, and Armine, are credited with grooming Sarah into the elite-level gymnast she was at 15 years old.

“The thing about my program — my wife and I — we’re just a vehicle,” Al Fong said. “We’re a vehicle for those athletes that have the ambition to go to the Olympics. We’re not a magic pill. We don’t have any magic dust to go ‘poof’ and blow it on a kid and it’ll all work. It takes a lot hard work.”

Sarah didn’t get any magic dust, but she worked, and it happened. She made the 2012 Olympic team as an alternate gymnast.

Even when the U.S. won the gold medal in women’s gymnastics behind Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross, Sarah wasn’t satisfied.

Not as an alternate, not as the next-man-up. But, her goal was completed.

“I’m still scratching my head on that,” Fong said. “You’re talking about the greatest country in the world, and we have been for the last 20 years. As an alternate, you are the team. Because if someone goes down, you’re next. She did a great job. As much as she felt as if she didn’t accomplish anything, she stands alone in that train of thought, because everyone else thinks she accomplished a great feat.”

Sarah, the youngest gymnast on the 2012 squad, knocked out featured, “senior” gymnasts as Al Fong referred to the others she replaced to join the finite squad.

She had made it so far and accomplished it all, yet remained disappointed.

“First off, after the Olympics I was really burnt out,” Sarah said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do anything or continue gymnastics. I talked with my parents about it, and my coaches, and they were like ‘you have all this talent, you need to keep going.’”

She kept pursuing the goal she’d set. She continued to punish her body as she became drunk in the effort to compete as an olympian, not to simply be a member of the eight-person team with three alternates.

With intensified training, her body eventually started the reject what it was doing.

At 15, Sarah suffered an elbow injury — which was challenged and processed during Olympic trials and competition — but she remained in competition. She later had surgery on her right elbow, where she had multiple pins inserted to maintain function between her interior ligaments and growth plate in her right arm. Later, due to irritation, the pins removed in a second, successful surgery.

The setback held Sarah from competition for more than a year. She was lost without gymnastics, without performing.

“Me, personally, I knew it was really hard for her the first time,” Hannah said. “I knew she had all the capabilities of doing it again if she set her mind to it.”

Sarah thought about chasing the 2016 Olympics. But the year spent away from the balance beam, the foam pits, the discipline and the passion overwhelmed her.

“Our mission, we felt, was far from over,” Fong said. “We really had it in our sights, in 2012 and 2016. But in her mind, she was done. At one point, it was really disappointing for us. We felt like we had four more years to go out and be greater.”

Through constant conversation with her family, and in prayer with God at home and at her church — the International House of Prayer in Kansas City — Sarah figured out what she wanted to do, and, now-LSU associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, Jay Clark watched, and waited.

Clark, who was the head coach at Georgia at the time, examined Sarah’s evolutionary process at it happened. He recognized her talent, but by the time Clark had moved to LSU, Sarah seperated herself from the world of gymnastics, literally.

“Sarah was the baby of the group at that gym, but I was very aware of her and watching her for a long time,” Clark said. “I watched her through her push for the Olympics. I just kind of stayed persistent with staying in touch with Al Fong. From time to time, I’d check in and say ‘hey what’s going on with Sarah, where is she.’”

At the time, Clark was recruiting then-GAGE, and former Georgia, gymnast Courtney McCool — a 2004 Athens olympian. Through watching and recruiting McCool, Clark spotted Sarah.

Beyond the elbow injury, Clark knew of Sarah’s disappointment. Sarah, unexcited and mundane, acknowledged Clark watching her, but she didn’t care too much.

“I know that Jay came to visit GAGE a couple times while I was still training there,” Sarah said. “I didn’t think I was going to do college at that point, so I really didn’t pay attention.”

“There’s some was some disappointment and some burn out when you’re chasing that dream at that level for so long and the hours of commitment that you put in,” Clark said. “To not have it finish the way you would have imagined it, it’s easy to lose your passion particularly as a teenage kid.”

Sarah had to figure herself out, and she did, with Fong’s endorsement, of course.

Sarah decided continuing a career in gymnastics was her destiny. She kept pursuit, as fast, and as goal-oriented as she once was for the Olympics.

“Elite gymnastics was really hard training,” Sarah said. “I wanted something similar to that experience, but not with as much of the training, so I was like ‘oh college gymnastics, that’s a different experience with the same intensity.’ So, I was like I’ll try that route.”

“I thought that LSU was a great fit for her. I thought Jay was a great fit for her,” Fong said. “I loved LSU from the minute I walked in there from the minute I left. I still have great, fond memories of the comradery and culture and everything down there.”

Sarah thought so, too, during her official visit to Baton Rouge with her father in the fall of 2014.

“My first impression was very, very good,” Don said. “The new training center was in process. Not a lot had been done yet. She could see that LSU had the commitment to gymnastics, which was very appealing.”

“I can’t really put into words,” Sarah said of her first time at LSU.

She loved LSU. She admired its then-gymnasts and coaches.

Sarah, later than most gymnasts do, took another official recruiting trip with her mother to Oklahoma. After concretely deciding collegiate gymnastics was for her, now, she had to choose where.

“We all prayed about it and everything, and ultimately the decision was mine,” Sarah said. “They told me, ‘do what, and go wherever you feel you need to go.’ So I really felt like I was supposed to go here.”

"Finn-again-again-again," as D-D Breaux calls her 

“Sarah Finn-again-again-again,” Breaux said, jokingly, a few day after Sarah unveiled her signature winding, 720-degree, “Wolf turn” in the Tigers 196.950-196.725 opening meet win against then-No. 1 Oklahoma.

Breaux told Sarah before her first beam run that she was the “most beautiful best beam worker” and for her to “do what you can do.” And, Sarah listened to Breaux with the same fierceness, same relentlessness, Al Fong once saw in the 13-year-old performer.

She scored a 9.925 in her first beam run, highlighted in awe by the world-renowned skill.

It was a normal run for Sarah, but her skills were on full showcase for the PMAC, and LSU began to cherish what it once almost didn’t have.

“She pretty much rocks the house like that everytime,” Breaux said after Sarah received a team-high score on the event on Jan. 9.

Her score on her initial beam run was the highest first run on the balance beam by any Tiger in LSU history. Not even two hours into the official 2016 gymnastics season, Sarah began breaking records. Her career had started with a bang for a second time. This time, she restarted behind 8,000 fans donned in purple and gold, instead of her three sisters in their auspicious basement.

When she initially learned the move, she didn’t think much of it.

“I didn’t know that was a turn,” Sarah said. “My coach was like ‘hey, do a squat down and try to turn around’ so I tried it. And, I guess I was really good at it, so I kept doing it, and so yeah, now I have a triple.”

Armine Fong taught the move — which is formally known as “The Humphrey” as first performed by 2004 Olympian Terin Humphrey at GAGE — to Sarah during her early years the Missouri gymnastics club.

Al and Armine wanted the Finnegan girls to continuously try new skills and tricks. They had the ability to put their bodies to the test, but Sarah’s ability was special. She was different.

“I don’t really know how to explain it,” Hannah said. “She’s just really good at what she does. She picks up on things really quickly.”

The triple turn takes an immense amount of focus not typically found in gymnastics. The skill is a rarity to nearly complete, much less perform on a grand stage and perform effortlessly, which Sarah does.

“Her artistry is second to none,” Fong said. “She just got that look to her. A lot of people try, but they can’t even come close.”

Before each practice, LSU gymnasts attempt the wondrous move. If one comes close to completing it, they’ll brag to Sarah.

No other Tigers can complete it, except Sarah. She’s always been gifted like that.

“She’s an exquisite-looking gymnast,” Clark said. “Everything she does is just perfect, right down to the toe point. There’s not a lot of flaw in her gymnastics. You can find people who are more powerful, and you can find a few things here and there that people that have traits that she doesn’t have. But, to watch her gymnastics it has a look, and a line, and a presence, to it that sets her apart. Her poise is unbelievable.”

How rare is her style, talent, progression, story and development as a gymnast?

“It’s very rare,” Clark said.

She’s rare, and LSU captured a gem.

You can reach Christian Boutwell on Twitter @CBoutwell_TDR.

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