Feb. 27, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Jenifer Simbhudas has battled through illness and injuries throughout her first two years in Iowa City, but now as a junior she has turned her struggles into success. As one of the leaders, albeit a quiet one, of the Hawkeyes' gymnastics squad, Simbhudas has helped the team gain the confidence it needs to contend for a Big Ten Championship next month.
That seems to be a big task at hand for any team in the conference not named Michigan. The Wolverines have dominated the conference scene by winning 14 league titles over the past 16 years. But history has not deterred Simbhudas and Iowa from losing focus on what she says is the team's ultimate goal.
"(Winning the Big Ten Championship) is the one main goal for us at the beginning of the year," she said. "We have been working so hard in the gym this season."
If you ask head coach Larissa Libby, the one thing she loves about her Iowa team is that each gymnast is focused on the team's success first, starting with Simbhudas. She says that Simbhudas indeed has hopes of standing on the podium at the Big Ten Championships, yet she pictures herself doing it with her 15 teammates. Libby speaks of Simbhudas as one of the top gymnasts in the country and feels that she has the potential of being a two-event conference champion and potentially the all-around medalist at Big Tens.
To accomplish the latter feat, Libby hints that Simbhudas will need to put the focus on herself more when she is competing. That doesn't mean she wants her talented junior to start thinking about herself instead of the team. She simply wants to see a little more pizzazz out of her reserved leader.
"If you ever watched her at a meet, she is not very high stressed and is usually yawning," Libby quipped. "She always looks like she is zoning out whether she is at a meet or not. That's why showmanship is always tough to get out of her."
Simbhudas found it equally funny when she heard of her coach's description and yet still lists the floor exercise - where showmanship is most important - as the one event that comes most natural to her.
""It's always in the back of my mind," Simbhudas said of a more outgoing performance. "My teammate Katie Burke is always about showmanship. She gets the crowd involved and even winks at the judges. I feel like I could do the same time, but I also feel like I might make a fool out of myself."
While her performance factor may have to be tweaked, Simbhudas' skill level in the event is not in question. Last year she scored a 9.9 three times on the floor and ranked as high as second in the event in the Big Ten. On Feb. 13 of this season, she earned co-Big Ten Gymnast of the Week, her first career weekly honor. In addition to her winning score of 9.875 on the floor, Simbhudas also captured the vault title with a 9.825 and took first place in the all-around competition with a score of 39.300 against Ohio State.
Libby, who says Simbhudas' gymnastics speaks for herself, jokes that she gets annoyed by how well her leader handles the success, when she thinks back to how hard she had to train when she was an accomplished product out of the Toronto area.
"What you see is what you get," she said. "Jenifer is very low key and knows what she has to do to not over exert herself. It's quite annoying. I was never that talented."
While both Libby and Simbhudas approach the sport in a different manner, it was their similar backgrounds that led Simbhudas to Iowa City. A native of Markham, Ontario, located just outside of Toronto, Simbhudas grew up in the gym at which Libby once trained. In fact, both standouts were taught by the same coach, which Libby admitted later was a great benefit to her when she was recruiting Simbhudas.
"I was able to see her when she was a little girl," Libby said. "The easiest thing in recruiting one like her is that I know what her gymnastics background was. It was very easy to know what she would and would not be capable of doing. We don't always have that with recruits."
The bond between the two was always special to Simbhudas, who admits that no other school was ever in the picture. What is interesting though is that college was not always in the front of Simbhudas' mind following high school. Her sights were set on international competition and trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. After a fifth-place finish at the 2004 Canadian National Championships, Simbhudas placed eighth in the all-around at the 2004 Olympic Trials.
When she did consider attending colleges, Simbhudas says that she never looked at school rankings and always felt like Iowa was going to be the best fit for her.
"I just went on what would make me most comfortable," she said. "My second family is here at Iowa."
Simbhudas also has first family within that second family. Rebecca, one of her two younger sisters, is currently a freshman on the Hawkeyes' squad.
Libby points to Rebecca's arrival on campus as a motivator for Simbhudas' success.
"We always tell her she got much better the day Rebecca stepped foot on campus," Libby said. "Jenifer has trained so much more this season and that gives her the confidence to transfer that over to the competitions."
Not only has Simbhudas' efforts been noticed by her younger sister, but Libby says the entire team has taken her lead.
"She is a great leader on the team," Libby said. "It's nice for the team to see her at the level we should all aspire to. I think that her quiet confidence is something the team looks to as well. She is not very outward and doesn't have an explosive personality, but she just gets the job done."
Always thinking team first, Simbhudas hopes the Hawkeyes get the job done on March 29 at the Big Ten Championships. Yes, the feat will be a tough one seeing the event is being held at Michigan, but the recent momentum the Hawkeyes have gained is something Simbhudas says has fueled the team.
Two weeks ago, 24th-ranked Iowa recorded a rare tie to No. 22 Ohio State and then answered last week by defeating No. 19 Michigan State and No. 21 Illinois. The Hawkeyes bested the two teams with a score of 195.575 -- the team's highest total since 2005. Simbhudas turned in a career effort with a personal best 9.925 to win the floor, while also finishing second on the bars (9.800) and fourth on the vault (9.725) and beam (9.825). Once again, she took home first-place honors in the all-around with a 39.275.
Asked how she has handled the success this season and how she goes about her preparation for a meet, Simbhudas' laid-back response really came as no surprise.
"I go into every meet thinking, well, I don't know what I think," she said. "I just stay confident and try not to get too anxious or nervous. I'm usually good at handling stress."
Which should leave her more time to work on her winking.