Ninety seconds is all it took for Jaye Mack to earn the opportunity to compete in this year’s NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship. That was the length of the floor routine she performed with near perfection in April to secure a trip to Texas, where as a freshman she went up against the best in her sport from colleges across the nation.
Mastering the leaps and flips built into the routine took months multiplied by years—15 to be exact—as Mack started on her journey as a gymnast when she was four years old. “My mom was a cheerleader so she encouraged me to do cheerleading or gymnastics,” said Mack, who remembers her first day in the gym because she was required to take off a favorite bracelet. That didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. “I loved it,” she said, “and I’ve never stopped.”
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Mack had the encouragement of both parents, her two older brothers, and nieces and nephews. Her father, who owns the restaurant Unk’s Burgers in the Kansas City metro area, took her to practice. Her mother, a pharmaceutical representative, picked her up. They supported Mack’s journey, which started with mastering the fundamentals.
“Initially you learn the basics, things like balancing on one leg with your eyes closed. Then you learn handstands and cartwheels and just keep working your way up,” Mack explained. She did just that as a member of the club team at Xtreme Gymnastics in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. There was no gymnastics program at Lee’s Summit West High School, where she earned her diploma while maintaining an intense schedule.
“It was a lot to juggle, but it prepared me for being a student-athlete now. I had to manage my time well. I left school early so my day was six hours instead of seven. I took a class before school started in the mornings or during the summer to keep up,” Mack said.
When not focused on academics, she puts all of her energy into gymnastics. As part of the elite club team, practices consume roughly 23 hours each week. The time was spent learning new skills, perfecting routines, and conditioning to stay strong. She was coached on each of the four events: bar, beam, floor, and vault.
“The beam is my least favorite,” Mack said, saying she found floor routines less nerve-racking. “You don’t have an apparatus to fall off of and you get to showcase your personality, so it’s fun.”
As a teenager, Mack missed out on some dances and parties because of competitions that ran from January through May. The sacrifice was rewarded when a coach from Illinois State saw her compete and expressed an interest in her becoming a Redbird.
“When I was little, I dreamed of the Olympics. By the time I reached middle school, I changed directions and knew that college gymnastics was my goal,” said Mack, who is majoring in interior design. One visit to campus and she was ready to commit to ISU. “I remember I cried with my mom. A weight was lifted off my shoulders. I reached my goal.”
Mack could not wait to experience gymnastics at the collegiate level. She was expecting positive team support and growth through the coaching, which is what she found at Illinois State. She was not anticipating such a stellar first year, even though she arrived with high expectations.
Mack was the 2022 Midwest Independent Conference co-champion on floor. She posted scores of 9.0 or higher six times during competition throughout the season. Her score of 9.925 at the regional competition earned an automatic berth to the NCAA as the highest result for an individual on floor who was not advancing with a team. Mack and her coaches agree it was the best performance of her career.
“I think Jaye proved to herself that she can perform at a high level, even when every set of eyes in the arena were on her,” ISU head coach Bob Conkling said. “She was the very last routine of the entire meet at regionals. I think that pressure just made her want to do better, and it resulted in a tremendous routine. I think we both learned she can rise to any occasion no matter the pressure.”
“I surprised myself so much. I didn’t know that nationals would be a possibility for me,” said Mack, who is only the second gymnast in ISU history to make the NCAA competition. She ended with a score of 9,750 for the performance that was aired on ESPN2.
“Even though it may not have been the routine I wanted to showcase at nationals, I am still beyond proud of myself and extremely grateful for the opportunity. Having this experience under my belt, I can’t wait to see what the future has in store,” said Mack, who was incredibly nervous as she experienced one of the greatest moments of her life.
She handles pressure and anxiety inherent in gymnastics by journaling. It helps her overcome the mental hurdles of participating in a sport that can be dangerous. Beyond her family, she credits her coaches and teammates for helping build her confidence and skills.
She honed both through the ISU team’s routine of three-hour workouts and another hour of lifting weights on the same day. Practices were held Monday and Tuesday, then again on Thursday and Friday, with some weekend sessions as well. The conditioning cycle is continuous and still, Mack often gets so sore she endures an ice bath to help relax her muscles.
“Gymnastics is a year-round sport, which sets us apart from other sports. We are always working and always training,” Mack said. This summer she will return to her local club to continue honing her skills so she is ready for her second season as a Redbird. She hopes to repeat her successes as a freshman and do more.
“My goal for next season is to compete at some point on all four—bar, vault, beam, and floor.”
Mack’s coaches have an equal amount of anticipation for what’s ahead. “Her consistency throughout her freshman year will set her up to have future success for her next three seasons,” Conkling said.
“Her work ethic and dedication towards improvement every day in the gym will push her forward towards even more success, not only on floor but also the other three events. We could not be more proud of her and can’t wait to see what the future holds for her and the rest of our program.”
Mack also intends to continue having fun with the sport that remains her passion. “I still love it,” she said. “Flipping through the air is the best feeling ever.”