By Kate Bruns
Jay Ronayne vividly recalls the first time he met Haylee Young.
“She was probably around 13 years old, but she was so little she seemed like she was about eight,” Ronayne remembers of the bubbly blonde who introduced herself to him at West Des Moines’ Chow’s Gymnastics in 2010 as a friend of Cyclone gymnast Milan Ivory.
Young, Ronayne would learn, was a top-flight gymnast who had moved to West Des Moines from Woodstock, Ga. Before moving to Iowa and training at Chow’s and at Triad Gymnastics, Young trained with Ivory, then a freshman on Ronayne’s Cyclones team, in Georgia. Young knew almost nothing about Iowa when she first got to the state, she says – but Ivory was her connection to the Cyclone program. And ever the gregarious kid, the future public relations major didn’t consider herself too young to start networking.
So a year later, when Ronayne started hearing the buzz about a “kid at Chow’s who’s really good,” it wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise when he realized the kids were one and the same.
“As soon as I saw her do gymnastics, I knew there was something special about her,” Ronayne said. “So we started recruiting her pretty heavily. When there’s a great gymnast in Iowa, we want her to stay in Iowa.”
From Young’s perspective Iowa State was an easy choice, just as Iowa has been an easy state to embrace as home.
“I committed when I was a sophomore [in high school],” she said. “I was recruited by Iowa, Ohio State, a lot of Midwest schools…but once I visited here I really didn’t look around too much. My big thing was I wanted to go somewhere I felt comfortable with my coaches – get along with them and have them care for me as a person, and that’s the feeling I got.”
Now, more than eight years after first meeting Ronayne, Young (’18 public relations) is set to start her own career as a collegiate gymnastics coach. She plans to start learning the ropes from Ronayne by serving as a Cyclones volunteer assistant for the 2019 season.
Young, who has spent her life in the gym — including training twice a day from ages 10-14 for elite gymnastics — has experienced some incredible highs throughout her collegiate and pre-collegiate career. As a club gymnast she qualified for the Junior Olympics nationals three times and in 2014 ranked among the nation’s top 10 in the floor exercise. As a Cyclone, she was a 2015 Big 12 all-around champion, 2018 floor champion, and qualified for the 2017 NCAA championships as an all-around competitor. She was a stalwart in meets and consistently posted some of the highest scores by a Cyclone individual in the past decade.
For Young, those individual achievements are hard-earned and will always be cherished. But she says she has fallen in love with NCAA gymnastics because of its team spirit.
“It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done,” she says of her time at Iowa State. “It’s more pressure than you can ever imagine, but it’s been the most fun time in my gymnastics career. Beating Iowa in the Cy-Hawk series by .025, which is as close as it can get, was a super-cool moment. This year we beat West Virginia twice, which was really big for us. This entire year was a big high – we ended [the season ranked] 24th in the nation.”
Ask Young about the biggest highs in her college career, and she’ll rattle off those team accomplishments first. It’s several bullet points down the list before she remembers to mention she qualified to represent the best of the nation’s best at the 2017 NCAA championships.
“Obviously making nationals last year was a big high in my career,” she says, “but while it was a fun meet it was nothing like it would have been if I’d had my teammates on the floor with me. Our team is literally like family.”
“The weird thing about our sport is that it is truly an individual sport, and even classified by the NCAA as an individual sport,” Ronayne says. “But we [at Iowa State] treat everything as all about team, and Haylee has embraced that from the day she walked on campus.”
The Cyclones, who despite a tremendous 2018 season were placed in a brutal NCAA regional this spring, saw only junior vaulter Meaghan Sievers qualify for the NCAA championships this year – ending at the NCAA Minneapolis Regional both Young’s collegiate career and her dream of qualifying as a team for the national championships.
“I was super hungry to train hard and bring them all,” Young says. “But we had a tough regional. We had a really tough regional. There were some other regionals where I looked at the scores and thought we could have done it. But, you know, right place, right time.”
“With the draw we had at Minnesota with the depth of the field we were up against, it was a lot of pressure on [Haylee],” Ronayne says. “She handled it incredibly gracefully. She made one little mistake on bars, one little mistake on floor, and that added up to her missing [nationals] by a tenth. It was a rough couple of days right afterward of ‘I wish,’
but she’s a pretty tough young woman. To miss qualifying as an individual was heartbreaking to her, but even more heartbreaking to her was the fact that we didn’t have an opportunity to qualify as a team.”
Young will go down in Iowa State history as one of its most popular student-athletes. Whether it’s because she’s following in her friend Shawn Johnson’s footsteps as an inspiration to Iowans or because of her “refuse to lose” attitude that has vaulted the Cyclones into the win column on many Friday nights in Hilton Coliseum, there’s just something about Young, Ronayne says. It will benefit her as a coach just as it helped make her a one-of-a-kind student-athlete.
“She’s highly social, which is great for a team dynamic. She’s highly competitive, which is great for any sport. And as a performer, she loves to show off,” Ronayne says. “She’s just got ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is. From the moment she stepped on campus, she became the face of our program. She’s a great ambassador for our university.”
Young says she has moved forward into life after competitive gymnastics with no regrets about her time as a Cyclone. Her relationship with the fans, many of whom are young girls who remind her of herself as a kid; the lifelong friends she has found in her teammates; and the career calling she has found in coaching have all been life-changing experiences.
“I don’t want gymnastics to not be in my life anymore,” she says. “After having the experience I had as an NCAA athlete, I want to be an NCAA coach as well.”
“She’s going to be great,” Ronayne says of Young’s coaching prospects. “She’s great at motivating people and she’s extremely passionate about the sport. She’s a gymnastics junkie. She’s been studying it her whole life.”
This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.