A perfect 10.
Fans of LSU gymnastics recall last season when All American gymnast Kiya Johnson helped the Tigers defeat Arkansas in a January 2021 meet with a flawless floor routine. A powerhouse across all four apparatus, the LSU junior from Dallas is especially known for her performances on floor.
That night, Johnson combined three powerful tumbling passes, a dynamic leap pass and several other moves demonstrating her athleticism and artistry. Each skill flowed seamlessly into the next, and was timed with a piece of music that showcased Johnson’s energy and personality. As the contemporary mashup played, Johnson flipped, leapt and danced her way to the closing pose, while her teammates mimicked her movements in support, going wild with the announcement of a perfect 10.
While each apparatus in women’s gymnastics has its own appeal, there’s something magical about the floor exercise. Insiders say this is by design. Unlike the beam, bar and vault, the floor gives a female gymnast the opportunity to connect visually with the audience and draw them in as she demonstrates a back-to-back succession of her best skills.
“It’s elegant, beautiful and crowd-pleasing, and when we talk about welcoming people into our party, we do it on floor,” says LSU Gymnastics assistant coach Courtney McCool Griffeth, a 2004 Olympian and former University of Georgia gymnast who now coaches LSU gymnasts on their floor routines.
The floor, Griffeth says, is a time when athletes are looking at the crowd, and eliciting enthusiasm—and energy—from both spectators and their fellow teammates.
As a college gymnast, Griffeth says she constantly worked on her own dance moves after hours in the gym, and helped teammates tweak their floor choreography. When she got into coaching later, choreography was a natural fit. She says it’s all about helping a gymnast find the right program.
“As a coach and choreographer, I approach each individual first with what they want to do, what they like, and try to figure out what kind of vision we want to bring to life,” Griffeth says.
Finding the right music is the first step, she says.
“We’ll go back and forth for a while listening to things,” Griffeth says. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you think of this? Do you like this count? Do you like the whole song? Do you like this rhythm? Is this kind of the genre you want?’ I try to take a dive deep into what they’re really enthusiastic about.”
Griffeth says she’s constantly searching for and banking pieces of music she feels fit her athletes. Once a piece is identified, she cuts it and creates the bones of a routine, giving the gymnast a chance to further personalize it and “let loose.”
Lasting only about 80 to 90 seconds, floor routines must connect several requirements, including tumbling passes, leap passes and dance moves that demonstrate flexibility, balance, strength and artistry.
Having the opportunity to create a personalized floor routine comes later in a gymnast’s career, Johnson says. Younger gymnasts compete in what’s called compulsory gymnastics, during which athletes at the same numerical level are required to deploy the same routines. It’s only when gymnasts advance to optional gymnastics that they have the freedom to choreograph a routine that highlights their skills and point of view. If they advance to collegiate competition, they can change floor routines each season.
“As we get closer to the season, I try to pick out floor music that speaks to me, in a sense, something you could see yourself dancing to,” says Johnson, who was the 2021 SEC Floor Exercise Champion. “Before this year, I never really picked out my music.”
Johnson says the floor is one of her favorite exercises. For the 2022 season, she’s rolled out a new routine set to hip-hip that showcases her technique and the solid “awareness” she demonstrates in the air as she takes off and lands.
Griffeth says athletes have to listen carefully to their music and recognize where they need to be at each moment in the piece. Transitioning neatly from dramatic tumbling passes to dance moves and leaps is a big part of ensuring a floor routine earns as many points as possible, she adds.
“It’s all about the details,” Griffeth says. “Small adjustments make a big difference. That’s what we work on throughout the fall.”
This season, watch as Johnson’s tumbling passes include a double pike and one-and-a-half punch front layout, as well as some new dance moves.
“I have a couple of spots where I can just groove on my own, or change it up each time that I do it,” Johnson says. “I think this year it’s going to be me getting more comfortable with doing that. And it’s been really fun. I feel like it’s kind of like a weight lifted off, and I’m enjoying it.”
In February and March, LSU Gymnastics will host four home meets in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, taking on Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky and Utah. Griffeth says she’s looking forward to the gymnasts engaging the fans, and the fans supporting the gymnasts in return.
“We would love for everybody in the crowd to do so many parts of our routines with us,” Griffeth says. “(Our athletes) have got to be very inviting with their performances, so everybody can enjoy it and jump into it with them. We just want the PMAC to be a big party, earn those 10s and drop the mic.” lsusports.net/sports/gm
This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue of 225 magazine.