After two runner-up finishes, Niwot gymnastics breaks through for state title in Class 4A

(Brock Laue/

THORNTON — Gaius Sallustius Crispus, an Ancient Roman historian, didn’t have Niwot gymnastics in mind when he said, “Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay.”

But the phrase certainly applies to this group. The Cougars only feature 15 athletes, eight of which competed during Friday’s opening round of the Class 4A state gymnastics championships.

That was all Niwot needed to finish atop the team standings for the first time since 2015 as they garnered 181.500 points. Green Mountain, featuring all-around state champion Emily Graham (37.025 points), was the runner-up with 179.950.

The small seeds of a meager Niwot roster, only in number of entries, blossomed into a sturdy force, capping the program’s 2018 aspirations with a gold trophy.

“With low numbers, they become super close,” coach Marisa Purcell said. “They become a lot closer than they do when you have a lot more gymnasts.”

The essence of this group is the alliance they have with one another. Although plenty of teams create deep ties, the Cougars are even closer. Donned in shimmering green and black colors, the gymnasts come from seven different schools in the St. Vrain Valley School District.

“You’re always proud to bring it home,” Purcell beamed. “It’s special for them to not only represent Niwot, but to represent the district as well.”

It proved to be a perfect collaborative effort for the group, who was looking to climb to the peak of 4A after back-to-back second place showings to Elizabeth and Green Mountain.

In some ways, unity can only take a team so far though. For teams with realistic championship hopes, ability matters just as much.

Niwot is plenty capable, flashing both their physical and psychological strengths with a bundle of points in the floor exercise (Grace Stephenson first, Lindsay Chohon second), balance beam (Hattie Katachis second, Taylor Green Becker third), and vault and uneven bars (two in top four of each event).

“We worked really hard this off-season to get some bigger skills and get the right routines down in order to be contenders here at state,” Purcell said.

During last week’s regional meet, Chohon and company gave a glimpse of what was in store Friday with sweeps of at least the top three spots in every event. Chohon, a senior, was at the forefront of that effort, bettering all competitors in the floor exercise, balance beam, and vault.

It was still a little bittersweet Friday for the Cougars though as Chohon finished runner-up for the second time in a row, a fraction of a point behind Graham in the all-around competition — 37.025-37.000.

“She’s one special girl to me,” her coach said, still plenty proud of Niwot’s top competitor. “I’ve coached her since she was 10, so we’ve been able to travel this journey together. She was voted captain this year by her teammates and led them.”

The skillful group (Katachis was third in all-around) lifted Niwot to a sixth team championship (1991, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2015, 2018). They are now tied with Loveland for the fourth-most titles in the Colorado prep ranks.

The school also collected plenty of hardware at the state cross country meet six days ago as Cruz Culpepper and Layla Roebke won individual crowns, and the girls team conquered 4A.

As for Graham, an evening that was capped with a title was almost stalled from the get-go.

“Going into this week, we thought I had a torn ACL and meniscus,” she said. “We got results back yesterday and nothing’s torn, it’s something else.”

The senior, with third and fourth place showings on her resume from the past two seasons, endured the pain, especially in vault.

“All season I’ve just been doing one vault,” the newly crowned 4A queen said. “Tonight I decided to go for a second time and on my second one I got a 9.4. That was the best score I got all year.

“Down the vault runway, it hurt pretty bad but I fought through it.”

Graham finished second in the event, which added to a runner-up score in uneven bars and a fourth place finish in balance beam. As a result, she became Green Mountain’s first all-around winner since Melanie Zaharias (5A, 1998).

Humble in victory, Graham was just as pleased with Green Mountain’s overall performance.

“We pulled together as a team so much,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better last meet. We have a good history with the coaches having state championships and I was on the championship team my sophomore year. Just adding to that is exciting.

“We also have a really talented young group of girls.”