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This is a story about several things. First and foremost, it's about family, and it's about gymnastics. It's also about two seniors who will perform in the last home meet of their collegiate careers Friday night at the Devaney Sports Center ... two seniors, I might add, who had never met each other until seven months ago, but are now good friends and devoted teammates, as well as talented athletes whose families cheer for each other's and share as strong a bond as anyone can imagine in such a short timeframe.
If serendipity is finding things we didn't know we were looking for, then Lora Evenstad and Katelyn Busacker are two serendipitous seniors who will be jointly honored with Senior Night salutes following Friday night's Nebraska-Iowa State dual.
To explain why serendipity is such a happy word in Busacker's vocabulary, we take you back to last August when, by sheer coincidence, she was looking for the same 300-level Nutrition Lab Class that Evenstad was seeking. Little did Busacker, a former two-time captain of Ball State's women's gymnastics team, realize how a T-shirt can become a billboard and deliver her big chance to bounce back into her favorite sport.
"We were both lost trying to find that class and asking the same person where we were supposed to be," Evenstad recalled. "I saw her wearing that Ball State Gymnastics shirt, so I asked if she was on the team there. She said yes and I said: 'That's cool'. We ended up talking right there on the spot, and she told me about her daughter (Ava), who was seven months old at the time, and how awesome it was to have her parents' support since coming back home (to Papillion, Neb.)."
A Tour of NU's Facility Sparked an Interest
After class, Evenstad asked Busacker if she'd like to see Nebraska's facilities, "so we just went around, and I had a chance to show her our gym," Evenstad said. "She met several of my teammates that day." Evenstad discovered later that Busacker had known Maddie Steinauer, a second-team 2011 Husker All-American because both had grown up and competed on Omaha club teams. Steinauer completed her eligibility last spring after the Huskers finished fourth in the NCAA Championships.
In another interesting twist, "I watched the national meet last year in Cleveland," Busacker said. "I saw Lora and knew who she was. She just didn't know me, so it was really incredible that she would notice my shirt and start a conversation.
"When I came back to Nebraska and met Lora, she asked me if I ever thought about competing again," Busacker said. "At first, I really questioned doing it, but the more she talked to me, I started changing my thinking. I've always had this goal to pursue gymnastics and a degree at the same time. My career kind of got cut short when I was pregnant, but talking to Lora, I realized I still had the desire to finish."
In another coincidence, Evenstad and Steinauer are roommates, "so Maddie started talking to Katelyn, too, and encouraged her to think about walking on here," Lora said. The roommates were savvy enough to approach their coach before double-teaming a young mother and trying to convince her to consider living her dream again.
"They really wanted me to try out for the team," Busacker said. "I wasn't planning on it, but I met all the girls, and they encouraged me to try. When Lora talked to Dan (Kendig, Nebraska's head coach), he went through all the compliance issues so we could talk."
She Made the Team, Then Earned a Scholarship
Bottom line, Busacker made the team as a walk-on last fall and has competed in the lineup this season on balance beam. She's also a talented uneven bars specialist. Watching how hard she worked, how good she is and how much respect she's earned from her teammates, Kendig decided to put this young mother on scholarship this semester.
Looking back, "I was probably a little afraid of being judged," Busacker said, "but this whole experience has been so positive, it's made me want to pursue my dream more than ever."
It has not been easy. "We started the season without her," Kendig said of Busacker. "Once we had a conversation, we did all the paper work, and she decided to give it a shot. One thing led to another, and here we are. My only regret in this whole thing is we didn't have more time with Katelyn because she's a doozy. She's incredibly talented and a great worker on the bars. We just needed a little more time to help make her more consistent."
Chances are Busacker will perform Friday night in an exhibition, but by no means does that diminish her contribution to a team that has to be considered a serious contender to compete for a national championship. "Whether she competes for points or in exhibition, I'm proud to have Katelyn as part of our program," Kendig said.
"I think we're a better team because she's a part of it," he added. "She wears a lot of hats. She's living in Omaha so she makes the drive to Lincoln every day. She's finishing up school because she already has a one-year internship in Nutrition, starting this summer. And on top of all of that, she's the mother of a 14-month little girl, Ava Marie. Any one of those things would be difficult. Trying to be a full-time student, a full-time athlete and full-time mother driving to and from Omaha every day requires a lot of juggling. She had a time management issue, but she's worked it out."
Mature Athlete Prepares Herself for Competition
It all boils down to family, and Evenstad, described as perhaps Nebraska's most consistent female gymnast ever, marvels at how much her new friend can pack into a single day. "Katelyn's amazing on bars and beam," Evenstad said. "She's competed for us already on beam and did a great job. She has beautiful lines on bars, too. She's mature, has experience and has prepared herself to be able to go into our lineup any time she's needed.
"She's an amazing teammate and an amazing friend," Evenstad said. "Her family has been to all of our meets, home and away, except for maybe two. Her mom is so loud in the crowd. Her family is just so awesome at every meet, cheering us on. We kind of got the whole package with their family."
It's been said that we never know the depth of our parents' love until we become parents ourselves, and that certainly applies to Katelyn, daughter of Jeff and Terrie Busacker, who will share in Senior Night ceremonies. Katelyn's sister, Kelly, and Katelyn's infant daughter also will be there.
"I think my whole road of getting to where I am today is an accomplishment in itself," Busacker said. "The journey I've taken is one I'm extremely happy with. This is a good ending, a tremendous thrill and something I never expected. I've been really blessed. My family has been so supportive, and my teammates are not only incredible gymnasts, but they sincerely care about every single girl on this team. I've never experienced being on a team like this."
Credit Evenstad. Her even-keeled influence permeates throughout the team. "We're like a big group of sisters, and it changes every year," she said. "We're all so close, and the biggest thing I try to help them with is developing the competitive edge. Not everyone comes here with that. They come with talent, but the confidence takes a little longer to develop."
The Goals: Make the Team Better and Have Fun
As a leader, Evenstad sees her job as showing her teammates how Nebraska competes and demonstrating why everyone on the team has talents they've been graciously given. "We encourage each other and lead outside the gym and inside the gym," she said. "We want everyone to understand the environment it takes to make the team better and to have more fun."
The first time she met Kendig, "I knew we shared a lot of the same personality traits and a lot of the same goals," Evenstad said. "We were philosophically aligned because we both believe it's not about winning and losing. It's about making yourself the person you want to be and making the people around you the best they can be."
Kendig and Evenstad want everyone to grow within the program, even ones who meet serendipitously and are encouraged to walk on. "It's not about the individual. It's about the team, and you understand that the first day of the recruiting process," Evenstad said. "Dan recruits a team, and he wants to make everyone a part of something. That's why we don't have captains. Dan thinks everyone brings a special trait that no one else has. He's always emphasized everybody's best quality and makes sure that's what we focus on."
Kendig's approach to make his team a family is designed to benefit everyone involved. It's the oil that eases friction and the cement that binds athletes and coaches. There are no magic mirrors, but Evenstad finds comfort in voluntary Tuesday night Bible studies that draw more than half the team, plus quick Fellowship of Christian Athlete studies before every competition.
According to Evenstad, that precious time together helps student-athletes understand why the team is the true masterpiece of competition. "It helps us work together better because we understand it's not about the winning or the individuals," she said. "We're focusing on something bigger, and it really helps a lot. I just want to thank Coach Kendig and our new assistant coaches. Heather Brink and Dan Miller have done so much more than anyone would ever expect from first-year coaches. They're brand new to this program, and they definitely bring a completely different dynamic. It's been amazing."
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