BYU's team didn't qualify for last year's NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at Florida. Then-junior Angela Andersen and senior Kelli Rose made the field as at-large all-arounders, but Andersen said she felt alone, competing in different sessions and practicing at different times.
Unfortunately, Andersen would soon experience a much deeper loneliness.Following nationals, Andersen and her parents stayed on for a little sunshine vacation. They returned to Orem the following Wednesday evening to find a crowd at Andersen's parents' home.
That morning someone had found Andersen's brother, Eric Gunnell, dead of a gunshot wound at his parents' home. Angela says it was suicide, though there was no note. There was a bullet hole in the wall. She thinks he felt badly for damaging the house and impulsively shot himself. "I think it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, something he didn't think through," says Andersen.
They were a tight family. Eric had been invited to go to the NCAAs but didn't. "I don't know if that's why he stayed behind," Andersen says. She wishes there were answers.
"It's still hard," she says, crying. It's just a week before the 1998 NCAAs at UCLA April 16-18, and that terrible anniversary is also close at hand. "I just feel him with me," she says, drawing strength from that. "We were really close."
This time the whole BYU team is going to the NCAAs, largely, says coach Brad Cattermole, because of Andersen's determination to get the Cougars there. "Angie was unwilling to accept anything less than the team making it to nationals," he says, calling her the Cougars' most outstanding gymnast and a selfless worker who's taught younger teammates how to lead, how to step up.
"Her priorities are in the right place," Cattermole says. "She has a real concern for the team. She's smiling all the time. She rarely has a bad day."
The former Angie Gunnell, whose pending marriage to Loren Andersen was the main reason she transferred after her freshman year from Southern Utah University to BYU, has always been a good gymnast. As a youngster, she came within one poor piece of advice - a coach told her to do a full pirouette for extra credit when a compulsory routine called for a half-pirouette, and she was penalized .1 point - of beating Shannon Miller in the elite nationals.
But this year, her last of 19 in the sport, Andersen has taken herself to a new level. And taken her team with her. In a year when scoring was supposed to be downgraded, she added .3 point to her career all-around best (now 39.45, tying the BYU record) and ranked ninth in the final NCAA poll. Her best NCAA finals all-around finish was 17th as a freshman. In 97, she was 27th.
She dedicated the 1998 season to Eric.
"It was hard the first three or four months. I really couldn't do anything," she says. "But I felt like part of my success in my senior year is because I wanted to do, I guess, my best for him. He's always been a big supporter of mine, and so, my senior year, I wanted to dedicate it to him because he was one of my best friends, and I don't think a lot of people knew what happened," Andersen says.
She began last summer, learning new moves, upgrading. "I wanted so many goals to be completed because it was my last year. It couldn't happen overnight," she says. She also concentrated on cleaning up deductions, such as for steps in landings - something Cattermole wanted the whole team to do. She went all-around in the last eight meets. She scored 39.30, 39.45 and 39.325 in consecutive meets before making a rare miss on beam in the final home meet as BYU beat Utah for the first time ever in a complete meet.
Cattermole says Andersen spent so much time advising her teammates how to hit beam in that meet that she forgot to do her own preparation, resulting in a fall that didn't hurt because the others did so well. She came back with 39.025 and third place in last week's regional that qualified the Y. for nationals.
Andersen began gymnastics like most little girls: Around the house, "My mom said I was a little fireball," so she put Angie in a tumbling class. She progressed, and then she saw Mary Lou Retton win the 1984 Olympics and wanted to be like her. Maybe it's poetic that the 1998 NCAAs will be held in UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, where Retton became an Olympic legend.
Andersen joined Orem's All-American Gymnastics club, owned by Brad and Dawn Cattermole, and held elite status for three years. She thinks back now on nearly beating Miller and wonders if she, too, could have been an Olympian. But after three years elite, money became an issue. Meet travel expenses were $1,000 each, and there were a lot of meets. To go further would have meant training out of state, but that was too costly and she didn't want to leave home, so she dropped to Level 10. "It worked out OK with me," she says.
Cattermole thought she could have won the L10 nationals and pushed her hard - something that's not necessary now. He ranted at her. He still thinks that's why she went to SUU instead of BYU at first, but she says it was because SUU acted like it wanted and needed her, and she got the feeling she was destined to be there to help the T-Bird program grow.
Loren tried to find a job in Cedar City but couldn't, so, with the wedding set, she talked to Cattermole. He saved a scholarship for her, and this time she felt more wanted by BYU. Ever since, Andersen's been one of the Y.'s best and, in this extraordinary year, she brought the whole team along for the ride. "Nobody has any doubt who the boss is," the coach says.
Her brother influenced Andersen's year, and Cattermole says her influence will last even after she's graduated. Her singleness of purpose and efficient training regimen have rubbed off on the youngsters. "The kids have adopted her way of doing things," Cattermole says. The result is a first win over Utah, BYU's highest regional finish (second) and NCAA seeding (seventh) ever.