By Turner Walston
As Morgan Lane ascended the podium Friday night, recognized for winning the all-around competition, two young girls ran down the steps in the Carmichael Arena stands, getting as close as they could to their hero.
As soon as the applause faded, the girls screamed. "We love you, Morgan!" She flashed a smile in their direction.
Lane has earned that adulation. Two seasons ago, she earned all-around scores of 39.000 or better eight times and won the competition on four occasions. She won the floor exercise at EAGL Championships. Last season, she became the first Tar Heel to score 39.000 or higher in every meet, and took first in three competitions. Friday's all-around win was her fifth in seven meets this season.
Lane has been putting up outstanding numbers since she arrived in Chapel Hill from Columbus, Indiana. But this season, her team is performing at a high level as well. Friday's meet was the final home competition of the year for Carolina Gymnastics. The Tar Heels notched a score of 195.625, topping 195 for the fourth straight meet, and earned the win against the Tribe. Last season the Tar Heels placed first in a single meet; they've done so on five occasions to date in 2017.
"It's literally incredible," Lane said of her team's numbers in 2017. "Having a team right beside me –and I know if I can't put up a good score, they're going to put up a good score– it takes so much pressure off. Seeing the success out there, I'm almost more excited for them than I am for me."
The enthusiasm for team is apparent during meets. The Tar Heels know each other's floor exercise routines; to watch one perform is to see her teammates in the background, miming her actions. They understand intimately one another's sacrifices, embracing after every performance, triumph or not.
Friday's meet was Senior Night for Christina Pheil and operations assistant Ashley Landry. Pheil competed on vault –where she matched her career high– and floor and in exhibition on beam. She somersaulted onto the beam, then promptly slid off. Pheil smiled and got right back up to continue her routine.
"It didn't really hit me until I was done with my final routine on floor, and I realize that this was the last time I was going to be in Carmichael, and be on this floor and compete for Tar Heel fans," Pheil said. "It was surreal and really exciting."
It was surreal to see Pheil competing again at a high level. An ankle injury cost her much of her freshman and sophomore seasons, yet she persisted in her rehabilitation. Just like on the balance beam, she got back up. "That really fueled me for my junior and senior years, to be like, 'Hey, I deserve to be part of this team, and I work hard enough to do this, so I want to be part of this winning team. It's great being back out there and showing them what I've go," she said.
As Tar Heel head coach Derek Galvin explains, the sport of gymnastics is taxing on the body. The tumbles, the leaps, the fine motor functions that go into staying balanced on a four-inch-wide beam (not to mention performing acrobatic skills), the landings after vaulting into the air, all take their toll on an athlete's body. "There's certainly a rough side to gymnastics," Galvin said. "It's a pounding on your body, and it tries your patience. You get frustrated like in any sport, but when we compete, we want to be celebrating the joy of it. We want to be bringing the audience into that joy, and this team is good at doing that."
The team is also building for the future. The recently-renovated gymnastics facility is helping bolster recruiting –a talented ten-woman freshman class is evidence of that– and outstanding leadership from Galvin, Amy Smith and Whitnee Johnson is elevating the team to new heights. Pheil sees the future only getting brighter. "That's what so exciting," she said. "This team is going to keep flourishing and keep getting higher and higher in the rankings."
But there's work to do yet. The Tar Heels will travel to Williamsburg for a rematch this weekend, then go to UCLA a week later to take on associate head coach Amy Smith's alma mater before EAGL Championships on March 18.
Galvin points to the joy of gymnastics that the Tar Heels display in and out of competition, but that joy goes beyond the arena floor. It's there on the faces of the young girls that cheered for Lane. It's the young ladies holding handmade posters by the balance beam. It's the little girl that whispered-screamed "Yes!" with every PA announcement of "...from North Carolina" as the winners were announced. That joy of gymnastics showcased with every Tar Heel routine is inspiring young athletes with every turn, skill and dismount.
After the meet, the joy persisted. "Can you give me just a few minutes?" Lane asked her interviewer. "Those girls have been screaming my name all night. I want to go say hello."
Of course she could have a few minutes. Lane picked up two of the white carnations she'd been awarded and bounded across the mat. She handed them to her young fans, took photos and talked to parents, thanking them for attending.
"Sorry about that," Lane said upon her return. But of course, there was no need for an apology. There was joy.