Talladega College gymnastics team has high expectations for first season

By Karyssa D'Agostino | November 3, 2023
Talladega College gymnastics freshman Jamilia Duffus does a back handspring on the grass in front of a school sign.

It was just last year that Fisk University became the first historically Black college or university (HBCU) to have a gymnastics team, but the history making didn’t stop there. This year, Fisk will be joined by another HBCU program: Talladega College.

The Tornadoes are set to have their inaugural season in 2024, making them the second HBCU to have a collegiate gymnastics team – an honor the team is proud of.

“We’re paving the way for younger ones, and to just inspire black gymnasts and other gymnasts in the field,” said Jamilia Duffus, a freshman from Kingston, Jamaica.

The new kids on the block might surprise you

The inaugural team is made up of fifteen gymnasts the United States, as well as three from abroad. An additional two athletes will be added in the spring, said head coach Aja Sims-Fletcher, who competed for the University of Alabama from 2014-2017.

The mix of ten freshmen, two sophomores, one junior, one senior, and one fifth-year could make for a rather green gymnastics team, but Sims-Fletcher said their preparation in the preseason will pay off.

“People will be really shocked to see how well prepared we are,” said Sims-Fletcher. “I’m so proud of these young ladies. We’re working hard in the gym, so I’m pumped to surprise some people in a shocking, amazing way.”

It’s not just the head coach who feels that way; the gymnasts also said they’re ready to make a statement this season.

“I just want to show an HBCU can be just as good as a D1,” said freshman Kyrstin Johnson.

Duffus echoed the sentiment.

“I’m looking forward to just being out there, competing as a college gymnast, and showing what Black power is,” said Duffus.

With a large freshman class, those with competitive experience at the collegiate level are crucial as mentors as the team strives to get competition ready and many adjust to college life as well.

Sophomore Sidnei Heubach, who spent her freshman season at Greenville University, is trying to keep spirits high in the final couple months before the season begins in January.

“Your first year of college is always going to be rough ,” said Heubach. “And you’re always going to think little things are the end of the world, but I’ve just been trying to make sure to keep everyone’s motives high and just encourage everyone to have fun and that’s what it is and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Inspiring generations with their authentic selves

With Talladega’s inaugural season quickly approaching, Johnson said competing against Fisk is one of the things she’s most looking forward to. She’s also excited about the team being able to express themselves through their performances, especially on floor – something her head coach said is a priority.

“I really wanted to make sure the girls had the opportunity to choose their own music so they could really show their personality,” said Sims-Fletcher. “So, I cannot wait for everyone to see their new floor routines. They’re just coming together, so fun and just so exciting.”

The Tornadoes are excited to showcase their authentic selves and be the next group of history-makers for HBCU gymnastics.

“It’s just an honor, in general, to be able to be a part of something that that’s so much more than just another college gymnastics team,” said Heubach.

Sims-Fletcher, assistant coach Wendy Carey, and their athletes might be building this program from the ground up, but that part brings some fun along with the pressure of expectations.

“We truly are building from the bottom, and we get to create everything down from the cheers to the leotards to the how we wanna carry ourselves,” said Sims-Fletcher. “And so that’s why I really hope they take it seriously when we do get the opportunity for our first meet to be like… we built this from the bottom, and it is all because of the hard work you did in the fall and summer.”

Talladega’s inaugural meet will be at the University of Florida on January 12 against the Gators, Fisk University, and George Washington University. See the team’s schedule for its inaugural season below.

2024 Talladega College Women’s Gymnastics Schedule

January 12@ Florida vs. Gators, Fisk, George Washington
January 15@ Fisk vs. Bulldogs, Iowa State, Rutgers, William & Mary, Brown (MLK Meet)
January 26@ Southeast Missouri State
February 2@ Auburn
February 11@ Centenary
February 16-18Zee’s Mardi Gras Invitational (at home)
March 3@ Bridgeport
March 8@ Alabama
March 15-17Nashville Invitational