Jan. 2, 2018
By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
It’s a memory that’s come in handy to get Cami Drouin-Allaire through the toughest workouts of her most ambitious fall yet as a George Washington gymnast.
At last April’s NCAA Championship, Drouin-Allaire broke from the laser focus necessary in competition – if only for a moment – to soak in the scene at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.
As a freshman, she’d been too overwhelmed by the stakes of the season-ending meet to truly appreciate the grand stage. Now a junior, she felt comfortable competing alongside the nation’s best and confident she belonged among them.
All that was missing were the rest of the Colonials.
“Being there, I know our team can go there,” said Drouin-Allaire, who placed 13th in the all-around competition. “We have the skills and execution that you need. I think it gives me confidence that as long as we keep working hard like we are, then we can do it.”
That feeling is a testament to GW’s rapid ascent in a short time. This group of seniors – led by captains Drouin-Allaire, Sara Mermelstein and Jillian Winstanley – wants to make more history in their final season with the Colonials.
Since Drouin-Allaire, Mermelstein and Winstanley arrived in Foggy Bottom as part of a spectacular recruiting class in the fall of 2014, GW has made three straight NCAA Regional appearances.
Fresh off an East Atlantic Gymnastics League title and their best ever NCAA showing, the Colonials are aiming to take the next step and be among the 12 teams that advance to compete for the 2018 national championship.
“It’s just been a lot of fun for everybody,” Head Coach Margie Foster-Cunningham said. “When you’re progressing forward like that, it’s, ‘Put your seat belt on. Let’s go!’”
Foster-Cunningham hoped it would work out like this.
GW’s head coach since the 1986 season, she hit the recruiting trail hunting for Class of 2014 prospects with the full NCAA allotment of 12 scholarships available for the first time.
She’d developed a strong foundation and reputation for the program over her first three decades at GW, and the six recruits she added reflected that hard work.
“It was kind of a perfect collision of moments,” Foster-Cunningham said. “We had the resources, and we were able to go and pick the cream of the crop.”
Mermelstein was among the first on board with the pitch, sold on the chance to chase her dreams of NCAA success and a career in medicine.
“Margie talks a lot about breaking the status quo,” Mermelstein said. “As soon as we came in, even if it wasn’t spoken out loud every day, that was something that our class has really pushed for.”
It’s made for an exciting environment, both at practices and meets.
Elite youth gymnasts generally train and compete as individuals. This group has embraced the team dynamic provided in college.
“I think we’re just a group of people that we never settle and we’re always looking to do more,” Winstanley said. “I think Margie’s really good, too, about pushing us to always reach higher and do a little more and push ourselves farther than we thought we could.”
Everybody has countless ‘Anything you can do, I can do better’ memories, daily motivation to keep perfecting routines and adding new skills.
That internal competition helps explain Drouin-Allaire’s tireless work to perfect the world-class Yurchenko Double Full vault for competition. It’s also why Mermelstein has trained on uneven bars this fall for the first time in years with hopes to make an impact there in the spring. And why Winstanley says that she’s in the best shape of her life after a fall packed with extra strength training and cardio sessions.
“Having so many people around you be so talented it pushes you to work harder,” Drouin-Allaire said. “I’ve improved more than I could’ve ever thought I would in college, and that’s because I’ve had this big group of girls around me always working hard, too.”
In turn, GW has made a steady climb on the national scene, bringing the program newfound respect and the expectations that come along with it.
The Colonials surprised in 2015 with their inaugural EAGL title and first NCAA berth in more than a decade. They followed up with a trip to the Athens Regional in 2016, before posting their best postseason showing yet last spring.
After a strong regular season pushed it into the Top 20 nationally, GW put together a dominant effort at the EAGL Championship with Drouin-Allaire becoming its first all-around champion.
Even after so much success in Buff and Blue, Winstanley was in awe of the way they were able to put together one sterling performance after another that day.
“Just because the energy and focus and cohesion of the team was unmatched from any other meet that we’ve done,” Winstanley said.
GW rode that momentum to a fourth-place finish at the Morgantown Regional, breaking the program record for an NCAA competition with their score of 195.625.
The Colonials were encouraged to qualify two individuals for the national championship meet for the first time in Drouin-Allaire and Chelsea Raineri, but they also walked away motivated to find the improvement needed to advance as a team next time.
“It might not seem like a big thing, but (landing with) a pointed toe vs. a flexed toe, that’ll change your score,” Drouin-Allaire said. “Those little, tiny things are really important, so that’s what we’ve focused on.”
Foster-Cunningham can stress the details with so many experienced gymnasts in her gym, led by the three captains.
There’s Drouin-Allaire, who Foster-Cunningham calls perhaps the most adaptable gymnast she’s coached. She showed it with her performance at last season’s national championship and has used the confidence gained there to add elements to every routine in her arsenal.
Winstanley sets a good example for the seven freshmen on the roster with her enthusiasm for practice. Last year, she was the first GW gymnast to be named the EAGL Scholar-Athlete of the Year and also earned first-team all-league honors for the all-around, vault, uneven bars and balance beam.
Mermelstein is the vocal leader of the group known for her intense focus during competition. She’s earned all-conference honors on balance beam the past three years, including her first First Team nod last season, and has continued to improve in every event throughout her career.
“That group walked in and they were very driven and very focused,” Foster-Cunningham said. “I would say that was the difference. We’ve had a lot of talented athletes here, but the focus and the drive and the resilience was absolutely a gift for me as a coach.”
For their final season, the captains haven’t shied away from their lofty aspirations. They adopted the motto “Invest. Unite. Elevate” in the fall, a simple blueprint for the path to more history.
When the Colonials recently sat down as a group to brainstorm their mission statement for the season, they decided to confront their NCAA goal head on.
Three years ago, it might have felt like a down-the-road dream. By now, it feels like the next logical step.
“We really have changed the face of GW, I feel like,” Mermelstein said. “Now, the rest of the schools in the NCAA are not counting us out. We really do have a shot at nationals this year, and people around the country know that.”