Before each competition, freshman all-arounder Ashleigh “Bugs” Gnat makes a phone call to her parents for last-minute words of encouragement.
What distinguishes this seemingly common ritual is the firsthand advice her family can provide.
Gnat comes from a highly respected family in the gymnastics community. Her father, Ray Gnat, was an All-American gymnast for LSU, and her mother, Joan Gnat, was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. To top it off, her older sister, Jeana Rice-Helms, was a national champion at the University of Alabama.
“Everyone in the gymnastics community knows Ray and Joan Gnat,” said LSU coach D-D Breaux.
In 1997, Gnat’s parents founded Ace Gymnastics. By 2004, this family business turned into a 27,000 square foot facility located in Longwood, Fla.
Coming from such an accomplished family can add unwanted pressure to reach lofty expectations, yet those expectations haven’t affected Gnat.
“I wouldn’t say there’s added pressure,” Gnat said. “Our family has always made an effort to separate us individually.”
Individually, Gnat has already helped the LSU gymnastics squad, which struggled on the beam last season. In Friday’s season opener versus Centenary College, she scored a 9.85 on the beam, which lifted her ranking to No. 18 nationally in that event. Gnat’s score also set an LSU freshman record for the highest beam score in a season opener.
Gnat’s early success made a strong impression on Breaux, but that’s not what had the veteran coach pouring out praise for her young gymnast. What excited Breaux more than Gnat’s score was her ability to control her emotions inside an arena that bears so much significance for her and her family.
“I knew internally she was in turmoil,” Breaux said. “I think the bigness of the arena and the history it carries for her all came together Friday night. But to handle herself with the kind of poise and confidence that she did was just a terrific job on her part.”
Gnat’s contribution helped the Tigers reach No. 2 in the latest NCAA gymnastics rankings, and her performance didn’t go unnoticed by her teammates.
Senior all-arounder Kaleigh Dickson first met Gnat when the two competed in club events in Florida, but the leadership and maturity Gnat has displayed early in her career still astonishes Dickson.
“She’s a great leader in her [freshmen] class and on our team,” Dickson said. “She’s already pushing the rest of us to be better. I guess she just has that contagious personality.”
Breaux said that contagious personality is another trait passed from parent to child, but she’s pleased Gnat is making a name for herself instead of only adding to her family’s legacy.
“She’s not her mom or dad,” Breaux said. “She’s grown up and become this wonderful lady all on her own.”
Now that the season is underway, Gnat is focused on helping the Tigers reach their championship aspirations. These expectations can put pressure on any gymnast, but Gnat has maneuvered through high expectations for most of her life.
But when the pressure does begin to mount, Gnat said she knows who to call. Her family has experienced the same emotions she is having, so there is no better place to turn than home.
“Before [competitions], I always call home and get a little pep talk,” Gnat said. “[My family] always says to go out there and do what you know to do because they raised me and they know what I need. It was different at first, but the team made it easy for me to transition because of the family we have here.”