LSU gymnastics sophomore all-arounder Ashleigh Gnat spotted her father in the record-breaking crowd of 12,217 fans with tears in his eyes during the Tigers’ victory against Florida on Friday night.
With her biggest fan in attendance, Gnat competed in the all-around for the fifth consecutive meet and tied her career-high, 39.550.
It’s not a coincidence Gnat is a staple on the No. 2 gymnastics team in the nation.
Genetics have a large influence on Gnat’s athletic abilities. Her father, Ray, was also an All-American gymnast for LSU; her mother, Joan, was on the 1972 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team; and her sister, Jeana Rice-Helms, was the 2004 all-around national champion at Alabama.
Ashleigh, whose nickname is Bugs, lived up to the family name by earning First-Team All-America honors on vault and Second-Team All-America honors on floor during her inaugural season at LSU.
She has garnered numerous accolades during her gymnastics career, but the best thing she gained through gymnastics is a close relationship with her dad.
“My dad and I are really close,” Ashleigh said. “He is my best friend. I can talk to him about absolutely anything. We just have a very open and close relationship.”
Ashleigh’s first memories are of gymnastics. Her parents opened their own gym, Ace Gymnastics in Longwood, Florida, when she was two years old.
The duo spent a lot of time together in the gym, where Ray coached Ashleigh until she left to compete at his alma mater.
Ashleigh wasn’t successful in her early years because she has always been undersized. As she grew and got stronger, Ray witnessed her signature blend of power and skill coalesce.
“It definitely brought us closer together,” Ashleigh said. “Most people have a hard time with their parent as a coach, but me and my dad had a good balance of our coach-gymnast and our father-daughter relationship. What happened in gym and at home never mixed.”
They spent a lot of time together outside of the gym as well. Joan, who judges gymnastics meets, spent many weekends judging competitions, leaving Ray and Ashleigh alone. They spent most of the time driving to and from competitions, during which they grew together through long talks.
“When Joan was away judging competitions, I had daddy duty,” Ray said. “We spent a lot of our time in the car growing our relationship. We are very close ... Joan has three other children from her first marriage, but it’s just Bugs and I.”
They have more in common than a mutual love of gymnastics. Ashleigh gets her looks from her dad, and their personalities bear a striking resemblance to one another.
LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux remembers Ray as the nicest, most outgoing person when he was at LSU. Junior all-arounder Jessica Savona said the same can be said about Ashleigh,and the chemistry radiates when the father and daughter are together.
“[Ashleigh] doesn’t talk about [their relationship] that often, but it is very well understood because of their presence and how they act,” Savona said.
Last year was a transitional year for both father and daughter. Ray said it was hard acting as cheerleader instead of being her coach for the first time.
But in Ashleigh’s sophomore season, he has settled into the role and acknowledges it’s more fun just being the dad.
They are still separated by more than 700 miles, but they regularly talk on the phone, and he goes to her meets when there isn’t a scheduling conflict with his competition schedule at home.
He has attended three this year, including LSU’s victory against Florida on Friday night.
“[Him being there] is awesome,” Ashleigh said. “When I go on the floor I look up at him, and he gets tears in his eyes. I can tell he is really proud.”
Ray has a club competition during the NCAA Championships April 17-19, but he said Ashleigh can count on seeing him in the stands at the Fort Worth Convention Center because his relationship with his daughter comes first.
“We have a relationship that I will savor for the rest of my life,” Ray said.
This article was written by Jacob Hamilton from ULoop/UWire and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.