GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Kytra Hunter’s introduction to gymnastics isn’t much different than many other young girls. Her parents, Kimberly and DeForrest Hunter, saw an article about a local gym in the newspaper. They signed their only daughter up to see how she liked it.
Kytra had fun and wanted to go back. When the family moved to Maryland, she enrolled at nearby Hill’s Gymnastics Training Center.
To her parents, it was a fun hobby for Kytra and not much else.
“They didn’t really know anything about it,’’ Kytra said.
That changed one day with a phone call from the gym’s owner, Kelli Hill, who coached the U.S. National Team at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
“You better bring her back,’’ Hill told the Hunters.
They did and Hunter developed into an elite-level gymnast that has traveled around the world.
Her latest stop is UF and Hunter has wowed Gators coach Rhonda Faehn like she did Hill at an early age.
Hunter leads the No. 1-ranked Gators heading into Friday night’s home meet against No. 3 Georgia with 12 event titles. She already has been named SEC Freshman of the Week three times and is easily one of the most talented gymnasts to tumble through the doors in Faehn’s 10 seasons.
“I would say she is probably the best floor and vault person that we have ever had as far as just sheer power,’’ Faehn said. “And of course she is very polished and excellent on bars and beam as well, which is sometimes unusual for an athlete who has so much power. Those athletes will sometimes struggle on the more finesse events such as bars and beam. That is not the case for her.’’
Hunter came to UF with vast experience, competing on Hill’s elite-level squad for several years. She later was a member of the U.S. National Team in 2010 and 2011 and has competed in events in Japan, Italy, Germany and France.
Working at Hill’s exposed Hunter to other gymnasts who came through the gym such as former U.S. Olympians Dominique Dawes, Elise Ray and Courtney Kupets. Hunter developed a deep respect for Dawes, who was on the U.S. team in the ’92, ’96 and ’00 Olympic teams.
Whenever Dawes would stop by, Hunter would try to absorb whatever she said.
“I watched a lot of video from her when she competed,’’ Hunter said. “People told me that I reminded them of her. It opened my eyes. That was a great comparison.”
In much the same way Dawes competed, Hunter mixes in raw power and elite-level athleticism into her routines, pulling off moves that others have no chance to make.
Her wide array of skills allows Hunter to score well in all four events. She has won each event in at least one meet and regularly challenges for the all-around title.
But Hunter is more than just a high-flying athlete in a leotard with a touch of glitter in her hair.
“She is so incredibly focused,’’ Faehn said. “She is ridiculously talented and powerful and she doesn’t take that for granted. She is one of the hardest workers. I think that is why she has had the success she has so far this season. She hasn’t had any struggles acclimating as a freshman because she came in with her goals. Her goal is to score a 10 on every single event and to do whatever she can anywhere to help the team.
“That is incredible and very mature for someone who is brand new to the program.”
After several years of competing with a vision of winning Olympic gold, Hunter has altered her approach. She turned 20 recently and is as focused on academics as gymnastics. She is intrigued by economics and is planning a career in the financial industry once she is finished with school.
Hunter realizes the notoriety that comes with winning an all-around title at the SEC meet or in a big dual meet against Georgia isn’t as great as winning an Olympic medal, but she seems content with that.
She is in a new place in her life with a new set of goals.
“Being an NCAA champion is a great goal,’’ Hunter said. “In college you have a family behind you. In elite, I really never had that. It’s more of an individual sport. Coming here and being able to have the support of a university and a team is important to me.”
Her addition to the program boosted what already was a talented roster. But she adds a dimension unlike anyone else.
So much raw power. So much all-around skill. So much focus.
“It’s a nice balance to have,’’ Faehn said.