Jess Clemens stood in front of the crowd inside a small gym ready to perform her first floor routine of the competition.
She was just a junior in high school. The routine was to be nothing to out of the ordinary, just a standard performance that every gymnast does. Clemens however faltered.
“I didn’t do my first pass because I stopped in the middle of it,” Clemens said.
No big deal for those in attendance, but it was to Clemens. She remembers allowing it to affect her next routine.
“I did my second pass and fell on my butt.”
At that point, fear and anxiety continued to take over.
“Then I blanked out and forgot all the dance” recalled Clemens. “I started doing a routine I did years ago because I just forgot. I felt so lost.”
Clemens remembers that day vividly but her nerves started well before then throughout her career.
“It would be a week before a meet and I wouldn’t talk to anyone, I was just freaked out,” she said. “Getting here I brought those nerves with me.”
Heading into her freshman year of college the sense of fear and anxiety over failure didn’t go away. It was now only enhanced by having teammates to perform for, not just individual competition.
“Anytime I fell I would get so mad at myself because I thought everyone else was going to get mad at me.”
Clemens gymnastics career began as a young girl then quit when she was seven.“I tried a bunch of other sports. I wasn’t coordinated at all in those so I found my way back to gymnastics when I was seven,” she explained. “That’s all I’ve done since.”
From that point on, Clemens set a goal for competing at the collegiate level. A big selling factor in her college recruitment process was the home show at Springfield.
“I had never really heard about it [home show] and they said ‘oh yeah, come up in October we’ll have tickets for you to come watch and see what it’s about.’ I was expecting some little, tiny cirque du soleil type thing.”
It was the experience that day that helped to sell Clemens on Springfield. The home show was unlike anything she’d competed in or watched during high school.
“It was the first time I ever saw gymnastics being used in a different environment besides competing” she said. “Usually you’re by yourself and this was the first time I saw a bunch of people come together to make something so special for such a huge crowd. It seemed like a family doing something they love for a bigger cause.”
By the time Clemens arrived things had already changed. She had been recruited by legendary coach Cheryl Raymond. “I commited around Thanksgiving and then I came to watch a meet in March.” It was then when Clemens and everyone else found out coach was retiring after the season. “They announced it there. I just thought what, wait a minute, I didn’t know.”
Clemens was caught off guard, but she was not worried. She knew that no matter who was brought in as a replacement she would be just fine.
“It happens,” Clemens said. “I’m a people person, I don’t butt heads, it was just a surprise. I knew I’d be okay with the new coach, especially with my teammates having influence for who was hired.”
By the time the season was around the corner Springfield had hired Jenn Najuch as the new coach, an unfamiliar face for the incoming freshman.
Clemens did not know her personally, nor did she know that Najuch was going to be one of the guiding factors in turning around her mindset and molding her into the successful, confident gymnast that she is today.
From the start Najuch was impressed with Clemens skills. “I remember first seeing Jess workout and I was just so thankful to have such a talented freshman come in around such uncertainty,” said Najuch.
Despite what her coaches and teammates saw Clemens experienced early struggles when the season began. “It was weird because my freshman year I thought after every meet that I know I can do better” Clemens explained. “I didn’t know why it wasn’t playing out the way I wanted it too.”
High school gymnastics and college are a lot different. High school is all about individual score and performance, and there is a lot of pressure to perform. In college, everything is much more team oriented.
Clemens initially looked at the team aspect in the wrong light, “I thought that since it was a team sport if you fall everyone’s gonna be mad at you which is not the case at all, but it took me the whole season to figure that out.”
Her coach understood the feelings that Clemens had. “To have the mental [toughness] to do that and complete all your routines is really hard. She struggled with it her freshman year. I saw her potential and she didn’t quite see it yet.”
Despite the struggles she was not easy on her.
“I threw a lot on her plate freshman year” Najuch said. “I saw her recruiting videos and thought if she did certain things she’d have full value. Adding four new skills in a routine is difficult so we had to step back and do one thing at a time.”
Eventually, the confidence issues began to show and problem solving went into full affect. Najuch tried to get through and help anyway she could.
“We tried a million different things and eventually took it one day at a time and we asked her everyday before practice what she was mentally able to do. We wanted to find where we could mentally push her or not push her and where certain skills were at that day.”
While Clemens was a first year student, Najuch was also a first year coach and earning the respect of those around her. This was a tough early test for the coach.
“It was hard as a first year coach for me, and it was hard for her as a freshman. I’ll see their videos of a skill and think they are comfortable with it and they don’t feel the same way,” Najuch said.
Najuch, having been a gymnast herself, remembers taking on nerves of her own. She knew that Clemens had the same fears every gymnast goes through.
“I definitely understood her frustration,” Najuch explained. “Your body can do it, but you’re brain just won’t let you go. If one thing goes wrong something could happen. It’s a fear of failure and what kind of failure that you’ll have prevents you from that accomplishment.”
Eventually Najuch understood what the team can do for each other. “The team aspect really helps. Everyone is there supporting each other through the good days and the bad days,” she said. “If you do have a bad day there are 20 other people there to pick you up and have fun.”
For Clemens she never saw that point of view at the start of her career. She was all focused on herself and hoping for results, versus utilizing her team and believing in results.
“Freshman year it was definitely more nervous. I would go up and be like I really hope I make this routine or really hope I make it,” said Clemens. “Hoping that you do it [but] not knowing that you are going to do it screwed me up.”
She struggled through the majority of her first season and although her talent was obvious in the gym it was not translating for meets.
Eventually, Clemens caught on that her team was there to support, not degrade her, “No one was mad at me, they were there for me to help and support me.”
Many freshman go through this same dilemma Najuch explained. “You get all this pressure thrown at you, and you’ve never seen the end product. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors have been through a season and seen the end. They know that when the season is over they’re still here and maybe they fell once or twice but it does not matter.”
After a long first season full of highs and a lot of lows, Clemens adopted the mindset of team and having trust in her own abilities and the belief of those around her.
Now she had an entire offseason to develop the new mentality she was buying into. “That was when I finally bought into the idea of college gymnastics and being apart of a team. That was a turning point and I bring that attitude into every practice and competition now.”
She went into her sophomore year with a new focus and mentality. It worked. “My first meet that year I made three personal records for myself” she said. “That was with the mindset of going in and having fun, and doing that well in that meet helped me realize that I can do it if I just chill out, that let me take off from there.”
After that, a new leader for the team had emerged. Clemens has a rare ability for a college gymnast – she does all around.
Her coach was adamant how difficult that is to do, “It’s very rare to have an athlete like that, especially nowadays when you get to college” Najuch said. “At least one or two events usually go to the back burner and you focus on two or three. She has all four so she’s going to work all four.”
The personal bests that Clemens set in her sophomore season included a 9.650 on the uneven bars, a 9.600 on the balance beam, a 9.525 on the floor exercise, and a 38.075 overall at the NCGA East Regional Championship.
The difference from freshman and sophomore year was night and day. Najuch took notice. “Jess is a completely different person in the gym compared to her freshman year and even last year” she said.
Clemens is no longer lost or struggling in practice. That first year practicing a routine for one event could take as long as an hour or hour and a half, now she can practice all four in the two and a half hours of practice time.
Bri Kerr is a senior on the team and one of Clemens closest friends.
She noticed the same changes and how it was affecting her in meets for the better, “We saw her progress and how she started hitting the routines. If she didn’t hit them it wasn’t a catastrophe, she got back up and she finished strong. We all saw that change in her and her confidence.”
Now, as her junior season is getting underway Clemens is viewed as a leader, a role she embraces. “It’s cool now being a leader” she said. “I had an upperclassmen last year who did AA [all around] and kind of took me under her wing and made sure I was learning and doing okay so I want to do that now. I want to make sure she gets it and doesn’t have my freshman year mindset.”
Kerr, who is a year older than Clemens, will help aid her as a leader of the team. In fact, she views Clemens as a leader despite being older than her.
“Honestly, I look up to her as a leader just as much as I would hope other people look up to me as a leader,” Kerr said. “She comes into the gym everyday and embodies what it means to be a great teammate and a great leader.”
Her coach said the same. “Her ability to show how to be a hard worker in the gym and keep going when you’re having bad days and to keep working through mistakes, that type of work ethic makes her a great leader.”
Clemens’ hard work ethic isn’t going anywhere, just ask Kerr. “She works her butt off every single day. I think everybody on the team looks up to her because she is stellar in every event, but also because of her work ethic and the persona she gives off in the gym.”
The skill has always been there for Clemens and now the confidence is there too. It had first appeared during the East Regionals meet during Clemens freshman year. The new mentality clicked in practice, and it was her first chance to put it into competition.
“It was the last meet, I didn’t have the season I wanted, but that meet kind of started me going in with that mindset” Clemens explained. “I said ‘okay, you didn’t have the season you wanted, just go in and have fun’ That meet ended up being my best meet of the season.”
It wasn’t her best meet for anything that was achieved in competition, but in her own mind. “I took pressure off myself and just enjoyed doing gymnastics” she said. “Whether or not it went the way I wanted I told myself it was more important that I went out there and enjoyed myself because I had worked really hard I should be proud of myself for that.”
After that, a new confidence and a new gymnast was born.