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NCAA 2018: Meet the Alabama Freshman Class

Bailie Key at the Jesolo Trophy in 2014. Photograph: Silvia Vatteroni The 2018 NCAA season is still months away, but it is never too...

Bailie Key at the Jesolo Trophy in 2014. Photograph: Silvia Vatteroni

The 2018 NCAA season is still months away, but it is never too early to start knowing the incoming freshman class for each team. This is both a way to begin thinking of potential lineups, and a way to get to know less well-known gymnasts and their routines.

Alabama said goodbye to an outstanding and numerous senior class: Keely McNeer, who was the lead-off on vault, bars and beam; Aja Sims, who was spectacular on bars, beam and floor; Amanda Jetter, who will be missed on bars and floor; Katie Bailey, the NCAA champion on vault from 2016 and on bars from 2017; MacKenzie Valentin, who contributed on floor from time to time; and Mary Lillian Sanders, whose best apparatus was beam.

The Crimson Tide will welcome one of the best freshman class in the country: Kylie Dickson, from Spanish Fort, Alabama; Lexi Graber, from Montgomery, Indiana; Bailie Key, from Augusta, Georgia; and Alonza Klopfer, from Boonton, New Jersey. They will also add to their competitive roster junior Peyton Ernst, from Coppell, Texas, who is a transfer from Florida.


Kylie Dickson trains at All Olympia Gymnastics Center, the gym that produced Olympic champion McKayla Maroney.

Dickson competed as a U.S. elite gymnast at the 2015 Secret U.S. Classic, where she placed eleventh in the all around and eighth on floor exercise. Later that year, however, she and club teammate Alaina Kwan were controversially granted Belarusian citizenship, despite not having any relationship with that country, and competed for Belarus at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow. There, Dickson earned a spot to compete at the Rio Test Event in spring 2016, where she qualified for the Olympic Games. In spring 2016, she also competed at the European Championships, where she finished twenty-second in the all around. At the Olympic Games in August, she competed in qualifications in the all around, placing fifty-eighth overall.

Dickson has potential on all apparatuses. On vault, she competes a quite clean FTY. On the uneven bars, probably her best apparatus, she has some big moves, including a Maloney, a full pirouette and a full-twisting double back dismount. On floor, she performs an E-level opening pass, a full-twisting double back. She struggles with consistency on balance beam, but she has some big skills there too. With some good coaching and some collegiate experience, she could be a contender for the lineup, especially on bars.


Lexi Graber trains at Coast Elite Gymnastics Academy. She has been a Level 10 star for the past few years. She qualified to the JO National Championships in four years, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, and won at least one medal in each one of them. In 2012, she was second in the all around and seventh on floor. In 2014, she was also second in the all around, fourth on the uneven bars, fifth on beam and seventh on vault. In 2016, she was first on vault. And in 2017, she regained her vault title, and was fourth in the all around and sixth on balance beam. In 2015 she also competed at the Nastia Liukin Cup and finished fourth in the all around.

Graber is an excellent all arounder, similar, in many ways, to her future teammate Bailie Key. On the uneven bars, she competes some difficult moves, including a full pirouette into Gienger and a full-in dismount. On balance beam, she is solid, confident and has beautifully pointed toes. Among her elements, she performs a front Toss and a double twisting dismount. On floor, she competes a sky-high double pike, a Rudi and a layout into Rudi. Graber, however, excels on vault, where she competes a one-and-a-half-twisting Yurchenko, which is worth a 10.0 start value in NCAA gymnastics. She can perform it perfectly, she scored a perfect 10.0 at the JOs this year.


Bailie Key trains at Texas Dreams with Kim Zmeskal, coach of Olympic alternate Ragan Smith and of Bama’s star Kiana Winston.

Key was one of Team USA’s top juniors last quad. She is the 2013 junior U.S. national champion in the all around, beam and floor. In 2014, still as a junior, she competed at the Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships, where she won gold with the team, in the all around, vault and floor, and silver on bars and beam. Key made her senior debut in 2015 at the Jesolo Trophy, where she won gold with the team, silver in the all around, behind Simone Biles, and silver on the uneven bars. Key later competed at the Secret U.S. Classic, where she finished fourth in the all around, and at the P&G Championships, where she also finished fourth in the all around and third on bars and floor. In 2016, Key trained at the Secret U.S. Classic, but did not take part in the competition. She was supposed to compete at the P&G Championships, but bid to the Olympics ended two weeks later, when, via her coach, Key announced that because of back pain, she had decided to end her 2016 season. Key had originally committed to the University of Florida, but switched to Alabama last year, impressed, she said, by the coaching staff.

Key was one of the best all arounders in the world a few years ago, and will still certainly be an all around super star next year at Alabama. She can perform a huge number of skills, all very well, and has plenty of choice. She is a powerful and clean vaulter, she may decide to keep her DTY, or to downgrade it to a one-and-a-half. On bars, she can perform a Jaeger, a Stalder Tkatchev to Pak salto and a usually stuck full-in dismount. On beam, her most solid element is perhaps a switch-leap with half turn. Acrobatics-wise, she can perform both easier elements and super difficult ones. On the ‘easier’ side, she can perform a super-clean free-walkover and a hand-free cartwheel. On the more difficult side, she can compete a BHS + BHS + back layout and a switch ring. Due to her past back problems, Alabama may decide to play safe, but what a luxury to have such a wide repertoire to choose from! Finally, on floor, Key can perform a double Arabian, as well as a double layout. One of these two difficult passes will most likely be included in her NCAA routine.


Alonza Klopfer trains at North Stars Gymnastics Academy. She competed at the JO National Championships in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, she won the balance beam title, and finished seventh on the uneven bars and ninth in the all around. In 2017, she finished fourth in the all around, fifth on beam and seventh on bars. In 2013, she qualified to elite, and competed as a junior at the Secret U.S. Classic, where she finished twenty-eighth in the all around and sixteenth on beam and floor.

Klopfer’s best apparatus is balance beam. She is a calm, poised and beautiful performer. She can effortlessly compete a number of difficult skills, including a one-and-a-half wolf turn, a free-walkover into leap jump, a switch leap into sheep jump and a very difficult dismount, a hand-free cartwheel to full twist on the side of the beam. On vault, she can perform a very clean FTY, while on bars, she performs a Jaeger and a full-in dismount. Klopfer is also a very good floor worker. She performs a double Arabian and a two-and-a-half twist, as well as a double spin with the leg held horizontally.


Peyton Ernst did her training at Texas Dreams with Kim Zmeskal, the same gym where her Bama teammates Bailie Key and Kiana Winston trained. It will be a Texas Dreams reunion!

Ernst is a former U.S. elite gymnast. She had to excellent seasons in 2013 and 2014. In 2013, she made her senior international debut at the Jesolo Trophy, where won gold with the team and was fourth in the all around. Later that year, at the Secret U.S. Classic, she won gold on balance beam, silver in the all around and on floor, and was fourth on the uneven bars. In 2014, she was the last-minute replacement of injured Simone Biles at the Pacific Rim Championships, and helped Team USA win gold.

Ernst joined the University of Florida Gators in 2015. Due to a shoulder injury, she competed only on balance beam, where her season high was an excellent 9.925. Due to persistent injuries, however, Ernst was later awarded a medical scholarship and was then released from Florida. She joined the University of Alabama in 2016, but was unable to compete last season, due to the fact that Florida and Alabama belong to the same conference, and transfers are required to skip one season before being competitive again. She will be back in action this upcoming season (2017–18), and she will be in her junior year.

Ernst proved to be an excellent collegiate beam performer. She can compete two different routines, a hand-free one and a more traditional one. She can compete to different series: a BHS + LOSO or a more difficult free-walkover into back tuck. As an elite gymnast, she was also a very good floor worker, as she used to compete a double Arabian as an opening pass, as well as a good bar worker. If she can get her health and skills back, she could be a good asset for Alabama on at least three apparatuses.

Good luck to all future Bama gymnasts!

By Talitha Ilacqua

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