Even before coming to the University of Minnesota, Alexis Russell had an idol on the team that she aspired to be like one day: Carmelina Carabajal, this year’s senior team captain and one of the most highly decorated gymnasts the Stephenson coaches have ever seen.
Fate would have it that at the start of the 2007 season, the two would be paired as big and little sister in the Stephenson’s Big Sister program for freshmen Gophers gymnasts.
One of the most accomplished and talented gymnasts as a sophomore, Carabajal took elated Russell under her wing right away. But this wasn’t any ordinary big sister match; it was something special.
Russell can clearly recall all of her sentiments towards Carabajal from the very start of a wonderful relationship.
“I thought she was so awesome. When I came here, I had already kind of like [said], ‘Carm is one of my favorites, she’s good, I’m going to watch out for her,” Russell said.
But Carabajal, a leader at heart, put Russell to the test every day in the gym. She saw her talents and abilities and made sure they were maximized. Even in conditioning, which Russell hates to this day, Carabajal was relentless.
“When Alexis first got here, she absolutely hated conditioning,” co-head coach Meg Stephenson said. “I know Carm really held her to the fire.”
Even with all of the extra time and effort Carabajal made Russell commit to, she knew exactly what she was doing.
“I know I was kind of hard on her at first, but she’s turned into such an amazing, amazing gymnast,” Carabajal said. “I tried to mentor her as well as I could and I think she’s found more respect to me as the years went on.”
The relationship is still steadfast between the two. Russell describes the unique sister-like connection best.
“[In competition], we kind of just look at each other or give each other a certain look,” Russell said.
Russell, a junior, couldn’t be more thankful for her idol. From keeping her conditioned to being there when her brother was ill, Carabajal is there for any of Russell’s and anyone else’s needs.
The gratitude, however, goes both ways. Every week, the two stand from the top and lead a Minnesota team by example. In the Gophers’ past two meets, for instance, the two have alternated for first and second place in the all-around. In last weekend’s meet against Iowa State, Russell scored a 39.375, claiming top honors in the all-around and placing ahead of her mentor. This only eases the pressures of being a captain for Carabajal.
“I feel like Alexis has really learned how to lead the team with me and I’m really appreciative of her,” Carabajal said.
But Carabajal will always be conscious that Russell, along with every gymnast, could use some helpful tips on occasion.
“I hope she doesn’t feel like I’m trying to be her mom, but I try to help her out whenever I can,” Carabajal said.
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