Junior Ashleigh Gnat has been an elite all-around performer for the LSU gymnastics team and is looking to take the next step in her collegiate career as an upperclassman this season.
The reigning 2015 floor exercise first team All-American has exceled for the Tigers during her first two seasons with the team and hopes to build on her success in 2016. “Bugs,” as her teammates call her, is looking to help the team reach its third NCAA Super Six in the last four seasons.
DIG caught up with the versatile gymnast about the growing popularity of the program, her intensified role as a team leader and more in this week’s edition of Talkin’ Tigers.
DIG: How did you first become interested in gymnastics?
Ashleigh Gnat: My parents are owners of a gymnastics facility. They first opened it when I was 2 years old. I was basically born in the gym. I was always around gymnastics, so I started competing when I was 5 [years old], which is abnormally young. I’ve always loved everything about it. My parents never forced me to do it. I didn’t think I was very good for a long time, but when I was in level eight at 10 years old, I won a big competition. That was something that really stands out to me.
DIG: From where did your nickname “Bugs” originate?
AG: Well, my last name is Gnat, which sounds exactly like the little bug. It started when I was a baby. I don’t remember not being called “Bugs.” My dad first gave me the name when I was about 1 [year-old]. It’s gone on ever since. My mom is always asking me when I’m going to stop being called that, but it’s just part of who I am at this point.
DIG: In your opinion, what makes gymnastics an exciting sport?
AG: Everything. The most exciting thing about gymnastics is the fact that we do things that most people just can’t do. We do superhuman things when we perform, and I think that it draws in a crowd in a way that other sports can’t quite do. People love to watch other people with crazy skills. There’s nothing like being out there. It’s really fun and really exciting.
DIG: Has anybody on this team or on past teams been a mentor to you during your time at LSU?
AG: They’re graduated now, but I would say Rheagan Courville and Jessie Jordan helped me out a lot. I looked up to them since I got here. They were both outstanding performers, but they were also just amazing people. They really cared about us. It was amazing to be on the team with them for two years and watch them perform. It’s been able to help me transition into being an upperclassmen and helping our younger girls now.
DIG: What’s your favorite sports movie?
AG: That is a really hard question. I would have to say Miracle, the hockey movie. I like the whole concept of it. Watching a team really come together and unite is awesome. I think it’s a great film.
DIG: You came from Florida and had offers from other schools throughout the country. What made you lean towards LSU?
AG: LSU just has something special about it. When you walk on campus and see the way that the fans are and the way that people love and support LSU, it’s awesome. We have so many opportunities, and we have so many amazing experiences at LSU. I think that just being on this campus and seeing how this team interacts with each other is really incredible.
DIG: How do you prepare yourself mentally and physically before a performance, and are any rituals or superstitions involved?
AG: I don’t have too many rituals. I mainly just focus on calming myself down. Some people like to listen to crazy loud music to get amped up, but I listen to slow music that just calms down my energy. I know that my body’s going to create enough energy within itself, so I like to focus on my mind and slow down my insides.
DIG: Is there a certain performance or moment that stands out to you so far during your LSU career?
AG: My favorite moment would have to be after the Super Six during my freshman year when we made history by placing third [in the nation.] It was just an amazing season and it was just an amazing group to be a part of, especially as a freshman. That’s when I knew I was meant to be here. Just watching everyone get together and be so passionate about the team was awesome. My other favorite moment would have to be the bus ride home last year when we beat Alabama. We were all really loud and it was so fun.
DIG: You guys climbed all the way up to No. 1 after your victory against top-ranked Oklahoma to start the season and remain high in the rankings. What are the pros and cons of having early success like this team has experienced?
AG: Being part of such a high-caliber team like this with the amount of talent that it has is incredible. I think it’s important to keep up the energy and just worry about what we can control instead of worrying about the rankings and other scores. Those are all things we can’t control. What we can control is our performance. We just have to stay true to who we are as a team. We have to trust the process because it’s a long road. Being No.1 in the beginning isn’t the same as being No. 1 at the end. We just have to go meet by meet.
DIG: You’ve been on some great teams, including the best gymnastics team in LSU history during your freshman year. Do you see any qualities within the current team that could put it over the top and possibly help it win a national championship?
AG: This team is super special. We’ve been talking about it all through the preseason. The way that we’re connected and united as a group of people is great. I’ve never seen a group of 15 girls who genuinely love each other the way that we do. It’s been amazing to be part of a team like this. The freshmen have really embraced the ways of LSU gym, and I think it’s helped the team bond and become very cohesive.
DIG: Since you’ve gotten here, has the atmosphere in the PMAC (Pete Maravich Assembly Center) during meets improved?
AG: Naturally, the attendance is going to increase as the season goes on. Every time we do something good, more people are going to show up. I think the Louisiana community has really embraced LSU gymnastics. I’ve been so many places where people will recognize [gymnasts]. I was walking to class the other day, and someone was talking to their friend about the gymnastics meet. That’s not something that would usually happen as opposed to a basketball game or something like that. Seeing this team grow on campus and in terms of popularity has been significant, and it means so much to us. And I know it means so much to D-D [Breaux]. That continuous growth is so amazing to see.
DIG: What was the craziest thing you’ve ever seen at a gymnastics meet?
AG: I would have to say last year when we sold out the PMAC and there were over 13,000 people there. I remember at the beginning of the meet, we walked in when no one was there. D-D told us to pick a seat, any seat in the upper bowl. Everybody picked their own seat, and she said when we get back, that seat’s going to be filled. I have chills right now just thinking about it. Sure enough, when we got back every seat we picked was full. Our fans were so amazing, and it was such an incredible experience to be part of a record-breaking crowd. We had more people there than the basketball team had against Kentucky and we outsold Alex Box [Stadium] that night. It’s a big deal, and it’s exciting to see the growth and the love of this sport continue.
Follow Mario Jerez on Twitter @MJerezIII_TDR.