Glendive native gymnast signs with University of Missouri

Richard Anderson
Sunday, March 15, 2020
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Jena Swanson, a Glendive native, recently signed a letter of intent to compete for the University of Missouri. Photo courtesy of Richard Anderson

Apparently when the Southeastern Conference needs a gymnast, they look in Spearfish.

Jena Swanson became the third member of the Spearfish Gymnastics Academy to sign a letter of intent in the SEC, as she will join former SGA teammate Chelsey Christensen at the University of Missouri.

Wynter Childers of the Spearfish Gymnastics Academy is now a senior for the University of Alabama.

The third gymnast to be signed by an SEC school makes Swanson proud, and she credits co-owners and co-coaches Phil and Chris Summers and the rest of the coaches.

“The coaches here have been awesome, they have helped me get to this point, and they have obviously helped Wynter and Chelsey get to that point,” she said. “It is really cool to see this gym produce gymnasts that can compete at the collegiate level.”

The Swanson family, which also includes Jena’s identical twin sister, Sam, came to Spearfish from Glendive, Mont., their freshman year. Unfortunately, Sam has had two ACL injuries, and her gymnastics career is likely over.

Glendive didn’t have a gymnastics facility, so they went to work out in North Dakota at a high school and did move up to Level 9.

But that wasn’t good enough, and they came to the Spearfish Gymnastics Academy, which was by now drawing some national attention with Christensen and Childers.

When Childers first went to Alabama, Chris Summers said it was like, “Where is South Dakota?” Then all of the sudden it was, “Oh, she is going to Alabama, they must be producing some kids,” she said.

Then Christensen signed at Missouri.

“Now we go to regionals and big invitationals, and they’ll go, ‘Yeah, that is Spearfish, we should go watch them,”’ Chris Summers said.

Phil Summers said Swanson came as a ninth-grader with very little background, and they’ve been able to get her trained to get this far.

“She is actually way ahead this year from where she was last year, and she has done quite well throughout this season,” he said.

The best thing, Phil Summers said, is that Swanson hasn’t put it all together yet.

“There’s been one thing or two that has held her back, but most of her events have been quite good, and they prepare her to do pretty good,” he said.

About a year and a half ago, the Missouri coaches reached out to Swanson during the competition season, and they started talking from there. She went on an unofficial visit at the beginning of her junior year, and she got to meet the team and see the facilities.

She also went on a visit to Minnesota last October, and was considering Michigan State and Texas Women’s University as well.

“They (Missouri) kept up watching my videos, watching my competitions, leading up to now,” she said.

Unfortunately for Swanson, she hurt her ankle last year before regionals, but that didn’t stop Missouri from recruiting her.

Their continued confidence in her made her feel wanted.

“The (Missouri) coaches definitely kept by me the whole way, unlike some of the other coaches,” she said. “They stuck with me and showed the most interest.”

The jump the last four years from just a few hours a week of practice to Division I gymnastics in the SEC has been large, but one she has been looking forward to.

No. 1, she said she wouldn’t be where she is now without her parents’ support — Scott and Lisa Swanson. No. 2 is continuing to try as hard as she can in the gym, outside the gym and in school.

“I’m just working, keeping that goal in mind and trying to focus on that,” she said.

Swanson is confident she can step right in and compete for a spot on the varsity, although she knows it will be extremely difficult right out of the gate as a true freshman.

“The thing about the SEC is not only is it the most competitive NCAA conference, it also has the biggest crowds,” Chris Summers said. “You look at Oklahoma, which has won the last four national championships, and they get maybe 2,500 people to come to their home meets. The SEC, the smallest crowd is probably 7,500. They usually sell out at 15,000. That will be an eye-opening experience, especially from a small state like this.”

While most gymnasts go into college as all-around stars, they often have to battle to just make one or two events on the highest level.

It all depends on the event, Swanson said.

“I feel good, but there are other things I still need to work on and clean up being a Division I collegiate athlete,” she said. “I’m really excited for next year.”

Going in, Swanson believes the vault is her top event, which has been her most consistent the last couple of seasons. It’s the event she says she usually scores the highest on, and it is also her favorite.

“It will be the one event I will try to excel in, and I think it will probably be the first event that I will be able to compete in,” she said.

She isn’t sure about beam, but she looks to clean up her skills on the floor exercise and bars.

“Hopefully I can compete in that the next year or two (floor and bars),” she said.

In the meantime, Swanson and the rest of the Spearfish Gymnastics Academy is preparing for the state and regional meets, and hopefully the national meet.

The state meet is March 21 in Sioux Falls, the regionals April 18-19 in Bettendorf, Iowa, and the national meet is May 16 in Tacoma, Washington. She’ll have to qualify for regionals and nationals.

She last competed at the nationals two years ago after being injured last season. In 2018, she finished seventh in the all-around (Level 10), fourth on the floor and sixth on the vault.

“This year my main goal is to go back to nationals and try to place really high again, and prove to my college coaches why I should be a part of their team,” she said. “I really have been working hard trying to get back since my injury.”

Does she feel more pressure or less pressure now that she has signed her letter of intent?

A little of both, she said, but she is still glad that part of her future is being taken care of for now.

Before she signed, she said she was talking to more coaches and she needed to prove that she could be a part of their team. But now, she also wants her coaches to know that she is still able to do what they want her to do, and be able to compete.

“It is about the same, but there is a lot of pressure to compete,” she said with a confident smile.

When Swanson was a freshman in Spearfish, Christensen was a senior. She’ll be a freshman at Missouri with Christensen again a senior.

“I always looked up to her, she was a huge role model. It was really awesome to see her go off to college to compete and be a collegiate athlete,” she said. “It will be a lot of fun to be there for her last year.”

With younger stars like Ruthie Wehrung and Savanna Dunwoody, don’t be surprised if there are more college prospects waiting in the wings from the Spearfish Gymnastics Academy.

“They’ll definitely be competing in college gymnastics, they are awesome,” Swanson said. “I definitely enjoy working with them every day.”