Chloe Widner’s final bow: Perfect 10s and a Cinderella story with Nerd Nation (aka Stanford women’s gymnastics)

By Eva Geitheim | April 17, 2024
Stanford's Chloe Widner on beam at the 2023 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships.
© Matthew Smith/Gymnastics Now

When Chloe Widner stuck her gainer full dismount off beam on Stanford’s senior night, it felt inevitable. Her teammates and Maples Pavilion could sense it: Widner had finally earned the first perfect 10 of her five year career with the Cardinal.

“It’s definitely a moment that I’m going to keep with me forever,” Widner told Gymnastics Now in March. “Getting a 10 has been a part of my goal for so long and especially on beam.”

Four weeks later, Widner took the floor for Stanford at the NCAA regional final at California. All three other schools had wrapped up their final rotation, and Stanford just had Widner to go. The Cardinal were still trailing Denver but could pass the Pioneers and claim the final spot at nationals with a 9.875 or better from Widner.

Widner delivered once again.

For just the second time in her career, Widner earned a perfect 10, this one clinching Stanford’s first trip to the NCAA championships since 2016.

Widner almost didn’t get the chance to earn either of those 10s. Earlier in the season, at a meet against Arizona on January 27, Widner hurt her ankle in warmups. At the time of the injury, which she refers to as a “sobering moment,” she didn’t know if she would be out for the season or just a day. Widner was only able to compete on bars for four weeks. She finally made her return to beam and floor on February 23. Two weeks later, she hit the goal she set out to achieve since her freshman year.

Injuries have been part of the story for the Stanford team this year. Through several meets this season, the Cardinal only put up five athletes on some events. During Stanford’s first meet of the year against Michigan, they only used five gymnasts in both their vault and bars lineups, and they had to count two routines with falls. The Cardinal left that meet with a 193.625.

Since, the team has gotten healthier. Along with Widner, Anna Roberts returned in March after she missed January and February, and Sienna Robinson joined lineups in February. The Cardinal scored 49.4+ on bars or beam early in the year, but their lack of depth would hurt their consistency and scores across the board.

“If you look back at our meets in the past, we have hit events very, very well,” Widner said. “We just haven’t been able to put it all together because we have had some people out.”

The return of these key athletes has helped boost the team’s confidence as well as their scores, which reached a peak on senior night as the team put up a 197.975 – Stanford’s second highest total in program history. Not only did they have all six gymnasts available for each lineup, but the gymnasts each had to compete for their spot in those lineups.

“Every single person that was competing had to earn their spot in the lineup,” Widner said. “We finally lived up to our potential because everyone could trust in the fact, ‘I’m not just going because I’m the only option. I’m going because I have the training, and I am very good.’

“I think we finally hit our stride.”

They chose the perfect time to hit their stride. While their early season struggles had few picking Stanford to advance to Fort Worth, the team has continued to peak since turning that corner in March. The Cardinal has scored over a 197 in five of their last six meets, including above a 197.500 at both of their regional meets. This late-season consistency allowed Stanford to upset two ranked teams in Auburn and Denver, and clinch their spot in the national semifinals as once of the final eight teams vying for the NCAA title.

Nerd Nation embraces individuality (and fun)

As they demonstrated during regionals, when healthy, Stanford is not just a good team, but a unique one as well; it begins with their routines.

While one criticism of NCAA gymnastics is too many gymnasts have cookie cutter or similar routines, Stanford’s lineups find a way to exhibit individuality. Whether it’s Anapaula Gutierrez’s double front half dismount on bars, Brenna Neault’s low beam work during her mount, Taralyn Nguyen’s gainer layout stepout-gainer layout stepout series on beam, or Ira Alexeeva’s press handstand on beam (or her Higgins and eagle grip usage on bars), there’s a level of distinctness throughout their routines.

This personality is also evident in the gymnasts’ floor routines. Stanford came into the season particularly excited about their new floor routines, and they’ve delivered. Amanda Zeng’s routine brings back childhood memories with her Super Mario music. The lineup shifts its tone after Zeng, when Neault showcases a James Bond routine. Widner also takes inspiration from the movies in her routine, using music from “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” to play an assassin that is sneaking around and trying not to get caught.

Widner credits assistant coach Hallie Mossett, who she calls an “insane dancer,” for not just coming up with these routines, but helping the team buy into them in their performances. Prior to joining Stanford in 2022, Mossett was previously a UCLA gymnast, where she herself was a two-time All-American on floor. After graduating from the program known for its choreo and floor work, Mossett began her coaching career as an undergraduate assistant for the Bruins. As an assistant, she helped choreograph her former teammates’ floor routines on the way to their national championship in 2018.

“That is pretty much all Hallie,” Widner shared. “Her addition to this team has been amazing. She’s just so creative and can come up with really cool choreography.”

“Over the summer, she sat down with each person that does floor individually,” Widner said. “She really works like one-on-one with us and tries to play to our individual strengths. It really shows in our floor routines because we all genuinely love them. She brings so many fun little games … she’s made it so much fun, and it’s almost weird if you don’t buy into it at this point.”

This individuality, of course, starts with the Stanford environment, which Widner and her teammates refer to as “Nerd Nation”:

“Everyone at Stanford has a thing that they’re very, very good at. To get into Stanford, I think after getting here everyone kind of embraces that, we call ourselves nerd nation. ‘We might be a little nerdy, we might be a little weird, but this is who we are.’ Getting into Stanford is such a big deal that once we get here, I think people let loose a little more.”

“Nerd Nation” also translates to their ‘quirky’ yet self aware leotards that only add to the personality of the team. Stanford began the year donning their now-famous Angry Tree leotard – a black leotard that features a cartoonized version of the Stanford Tree. It’s a distinctly different tone than typical collegiate leotard designs.

“That leo, specifically, really encapsulates who we are as a team because we do work very hard and we’re obviously here to compete, but we really enjoy the silly moments and just embracing the things that got us into Stanford,” Widner explained. “You have to be a little weird – you have to have something to be able to come here.”

The Cardinal can be seen embracing these ‘silly’ moments after their teammates’ floor routines. When Nguyen ends her floor routine, the team will toss her up into the air. Meanwhile, Victoria Cluck ends her routine in a pose that makes it appear like she’s dying. Once she salutes, she gets back down on the floor, and her team comes over to drag her off the floor like they’re carrying a corpse.

“It really makes us more cohesive as a team to do stupid things like that,” Widner explained.

Widner admits they still have work to do on these “stupid moments,” including carrying Cluck better. “We definitely should have practiced before because I think we were hitting her head [on the floor].”

Despite embracing silly and stupid moments, Stanford can still come together in a more serious fashion. When Widner stuck the beam dismount that would earn her first 10, she was rushed by her team. Neault was the most ecstatic, immediately bursting into tears before Widner’s score even came up.

“Brenna [Neault] was crying before they even flashed the score,” Widner said. “I think she knew. When I finished my routine, she came over and hugged me and she was just sobbing … then they flashed the score, and she was crying even harder.”

Not long after Neault began crying, Widner and the team joined in too – “I genuinely didn’t think I was gonna cry, but immediately, hearing my teammates start yelling, I was sobbing.”

Widner gives credit to her team, not just for selflessly celebrating with her, but creating the momentum leading into her first collegiate 10. Going into this accomplishment, Widner assumed that the moment would be primarily a personal achievement – her finally reaching a goal she’s strived for. In hindsight, Widner realized that the moment was far more than just her routine.

“I didn’t really realize until I got [the 10] how much of a team moment it would be,” Widner reflected. “I kind of thought, ‘This has been my goal forever. I’m going to be super excited when I get it.'”

“Every single girl in the lineup before me was setting me up. They’re all hitting the routines. You know, we had a few 9.95s, 9.975s. As I was seeing that happen, I was like, ‘Alright, they’re all doing their job. I need to capitalize on this and and just hit my routine.’ Just having it all come together as a team is really amazing.”

The team effort came through once again a month later at regionals. Prior to Widner’s perfect 10 that sealed their spot at the NCAA championships, Neault scored a 9.9 and Roberts scored a 9.95, setting up the chance for Widner to hit and score big.

The team celebration for this 10 was even more monumental, providing the cherry on top for Stanford earning their first trip to nationals in eight years. Widner has previously qualified for NCAA championships as an individual, but she will go alongside her team for the first time to close out her storied career.

When the championships conclude, this Stanford team will have to move forward without one of their leaders and one of the best gymnasts in program history as Widner ends her career after five years with the Cardinal. Though Widner calls the upcoming end to her gymnastics career “bittersweet,” she admits she feels ready to move on. Widner will go out having become a two-time first-team All-American on beam, the 2024 Pac-12 Specialist of the Year, regional all-around champion, All-Pac-12 first-team on bars, and scoring (at least) two perfect 10s. She’ll have the opportunity to add a national title to this resumé in Fort Worth.

“It’s definitely gonna be weird to be done, but I do think my body’s ready,” Widner said. “I’m getting tired. It’s very bittersweet because I am at a point in my life where I’m ready to be done, but I know I’m going to be so sad to be done with it as well.”

“I’ve achieved every single goal that I felt was realistic to set out to achieve … I feel like I’m finally in a place where I have done everything that I feel like I can do; I’ve put in as much effort as possible. I’m really glad I came back [for a fifth year], it was definitely worth it. This team is amazing.”