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The ‘Raena Worley era’ of Kentucky gymnastics unlocks long-sought perfection for Wildcats

What does it take to become a University of Kentucky icon?

Collecting more than 10 All-America honors? Reaching heights that only one athlete, the unanimously agreed upon “best-ever” Wildcat, has achieved? Embracing the great responsibility of serving as a role model for young people?

Or maybe it’s just loving the opportunity to compete as a Wildcat and, because of that love, promising the best of your efforts during your time.

The end of senior gymnast Raena Worley’s collegiate career is fast approaching, but she’s spent the past five years as a Wildcat on an upward trajectory — with some of her greatest moments in the sport arriving this season.

Last week, Kentucky gymnastics posted an all-time record finish at the Southeastern Conference Championship, finishing third with a final score of 197.600. In that effort, Worley was the co-champion on floor exercise, took second place on the balance beam and finished third in the all-around scoring. Days later, Worley added four Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association All-America selections to her storied resume: First Team All-Around, First Team Bars, First Team Floor and Second Team Beam, making her a 12-time All-American.

Worley described enjoying some of the highest highs of her career during her final season as the “cherry on top.”

“I think this season I went into it just wanting to not put any pressure on myself,” Worley said. “Obviously, always, there was a hope that I would get a 10.0, but going into the season I was trying to just brush all that off the table and just get to enjoy it one last time.”

Thirteen-time All-American Jenny Hansen, the aforementioned “best-ever” UK gymnast, was the last Wildcat to achieve a perfect 10.0. Hansen posted 32 perfect scores in her collegiate career, with 21 of those on the vault. She graduated in 1996 as one of the most decorated and respected collegiate gymnasts in the history of the sport and, until 2024, nobody else claimed a perfect score in Kentucky blue.

Fast forward to Jan. 26 of this year, the Wildcats’ 2024 home opener against No. 18 Georgia. With Hansen in attendance, Kentucky gymnastics coach Tim Garrison watched in awe as not one, but two Wildcats recorded perfect scores — junior Mackenzie Wilson dazzled Excite Night attendees with a front handspring pike half on the vault, and Worley delivered a spectacle on the floor.

“I don’t think you’re ready for it, you know, when it happens,” Garrison said afterward. “Especially because we’ve been here, this is my 13th season, and we haven’t had one yet in my history here.”

Those perfect scores, the first-ever achieved in Rupp Arena, weren’t the program’s only this season. Wilson, a 2024 First Team All-America vaulter, would clock another 10.000 on the vault against No. 5 Florida on March 3.

On the floor, Worley also earned a perfect 10.000 against the Gators. For the first time in her collegiate career — and in her final season — Worley broke through and reached a level gymnasts dream of touching. And then she kept reaching it.

The flawless routine against Florida marked Worley’s third perfect score on the floor following the feat against the Bulldogs on Excite Night and her performance Feb. 2 against No. 6 Alabama. Worley would go on to record another perfect score on the floor against North Carolina on March 8, and also earned a 10.000 on the uneven bars on Feb. 16 against No. 24 BYU.

That reminder to stop putting pressure on herself to achieve a perfect score was a necessary one for Worley, and the act of that removal allowed her to find new potential.

“Once I got the first one, it lifted a bunch of pressure off of myself,” Worley said. “Because I feel like I’ve been trying to get one for so long, and when it finally happened it was like, ‘OK, I can actually just enjoy my gymnastics.’ There’s no outside pressure of trying to get a certain score, perform a certain way that people think I need to perform to get a 10. So I think it’s just been pure excitement and joy at this point, and I think that’s made it a lot more fun for me.”

Kentucky fifth-year senior Raena Worley scored perfect 10s on the floor exercise four times this season and once on the uneven bars. No UK gymnast had recorded a perfect score before this season since Jenny Hansen in 1996.
Kentucky fifth-year senior Raena Worley scored perfect 10s on the floor exercise four times this season and once on the uneven bars. No UK gymnast had recorded a perfect score before this season since Jenny Hansen in 1996.

Doing the math of a perfect score

What Hansen did in Lexington was remarkable, but there’s always room for another nationally renowned UK gymnast. Just ask senior Bailey Bunn, who Worley said will always inspire her. Bunn describes this period of Kentucky gymnastics as “the Raena Worley era.”

“There are not enough words to describe Raena Worley,” Bunn said. “She is driven, talented, and caring. Her gymnastics is just a small glimpse of how amazing she is. Not only is she the GOAT of Kentucky gymnastics but she is also the most amazing person on the inside. She took me under her wing my freshman year and showed me what it takes to be great. She is a calm competitor and a true friend. I am thankful to have been able to live and train in the Raena Worley era.”

The fact is, what Worley has done during her time here is era-defining.

It’s incredibly difficult to achieve a perfect score on any apparatus, let alone more than one in one season. While it’s impossible for fans and onlookers alike to truly understand what it takes, Worley is acutely aware of every movement — or lack thereof — and every bodily angle and facial expression at each and every moment during any given routine.

Worley said that during a routine, a gymnast is thinking about every little thing that could stop them from achieving a 10.000, and do everything in their power to prevent those things from happening.

“When I do a floor routine, going into it I’m like, ‘OK, well legs,’” Worley explained. “And then you land, and then it’s the next skill, which will be leaps. And sometimes the judges’ placement could affect that. So if they’re placed a certain way, they might see something that you had no idea could happen. So I think it’s a lot more challenging, yes physically, but it’s a big mental thing. Because you have to be on top of your game mentally to keep track of things that could happen and how to prevent them.”

Overwhelming for some, incredible to most, the sport’s intricacies and challenges are second nature to Worley and her teammates, but, she laughed, more than an outsider might expect.

“At this point in any gymnast’s career,” Worley said. “It becomes second nature to have that kind of math running in the back of your mind. But yeah, I guess when you take a step back it is a lot more than you think it would be.”

Raena Worley celebrates with her family in the stands after her floor routine during Kentucky’s annual Excite Night meet against Georgia at Rupp Arena this season.
Raena Worley celebrates with her family in the stands after her floor routine during Kentucky’s annual Excite Night meet against Georgia at Rupp Arena this season.

College path vs. Olympics path

It takes years to access that level of awareness, if one even can. Worley’s first brush with gymnastics came at 4 years old in the form of a class, a birthday gift from her mother, Kathryn, then a ballet teacher. Kathryn, of course, had been trying to get her daughter to do ballet “all this time,” but as Worley spent more time with gymnastics ...

“There was no more ballet,” Worley said. “It was done.”

From there, it was all gymnastics all the time, with heroes like gold medalist Shawn Johnson and Worley’s childhood club coach Cheryl Johnson serving as role models along the way.

For the sport’s highest-level athletes who choose to continue as they get older, there’s a choice between elite and collegiate. And, while both can technically be done, as evidenced by Olympic medalists Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and Suni Lee (Auburn), most pursue one path or the other; and the choice is made when an athlete is quite young. Worley did, initially, begin the process toward the elite route, drastically upping her skills and practice hours, but she found that the shift took away from her passion.

“We had to up my skills, up my practice hours, and it was just miserable,” Worley said. “I did not have fun. It completely stole everything that I enjoy from the sport. And so I think that’s when I had my perspective switch and I really realized that I don’t want to do this sport to go to the Olympics. I would rather do the sport to impact the lives of people that I can, and to really just have fun with it and do it because I love it.”

Worley’s first unofficial visit to UK happened near the start of high school, and, at that point, she wasn’t too familiar with the collegiate route. Garrison offered a scholarship not long after, and Worley committed at the end of her freshman year.

“I didn’t know a lot about college gymnastics,” Worley said. “I mainly knew the elite route and that was pretty much it. So getting to explore college gymnastics was really cool, and Kentucky was the first school I ever really came to to tour and it was a really cool experience. I know it was just overwhelmingly exciting to see that women our age are still able to compete at such a high level.”

College gymnastics is unique in its recruitment process, with its athletes often committing to a program years sooner than their peers in sports like basketball or football. But Worley said that, from the moment she first toured UK, she felt comfortable. From the passionate fan base, to the campus atmosphere, to the program’s values, Worley said it’s always felt like home to her.

“It was very comfortable,” Worley said. “The coaching staff has always been amazing, the team dynamic has always been so close. And they’re a very faith-based team; I’m a Christian myself, but having people that you can rely on, both in the gym and to be there for you spiritually, is a really cool concept that I think is really special about this team.”

Kentucky’s Raena Worley says she chose college gymnastics after giving the more rigorous Olympic route a try. “We had to up my skills, up my practice hours, and it was just miserable,” she said. “I did not have fun. It completely stole everything that I enjoy from the sport.”
Kentucky’s Raena Worley says she chose college gymnastics after giving the more rigorous Olympic route a try. “We had to up my skills, up my practice hours, and it was just miserable,” she said. “I did not have fun. It completely stole everything that I enjoy from the sport.”

Historic impact

Purpose and impact through faith and kindness, that’s Worley. And the program is — and will become — different because of her influence. Better because she was in it. Take it from SEC All-Freshman selection and WCGA Second Team Floor All-America honoree Creslyn Brose.

“Worley is actually the best person ever!” Brose said. “Not only is she extremely talented when it comes to gymnastics, she is also an amazing person as well. She is extremely supportive in and out of the gym and she never fails to make me laugh. I wish we were together on the team for longer, but I’m so grateful to have her for one year because she has made such a huge impact on me in the most positive way. I’m so happy I can call her one of my best friends and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her! I’m going to miss her so much!”

Worley acknowledged that greatness lies ahead for the program, and that she won’t be an active participant in that future success, likening it to “a generational thing.”

“Time after time, it’s just going to continue to grow,” Worley said. “Gymnastics is a big individual sport. Especially in the club level, you go from competing for a team as an individual, but I think in college you go to compete as an individual for a team. Obviously, you’re the one stepping up, doing the routine and you’re the one that’s going to compete. But it’s for the team. It’s mainly about the team. And I think going from Team 49 to Team 50, to Team 51, and just being able to impact by what I do as a gymnast, I am so excited to see what impact I get to have on them and what is to come.”

Worley’s fifth and final season of collegiate gymnastics just so happens to align with Team 50, or the program’s 50th season, and, whether you ask Garrison, any member of the team’s coaching or support staff or one of Worley’s teammates, her impact has been historic.

She ranks first nationally in the NCAA National Qualifying Score (NQS) on the floor this season with an eye-catching 9.990. She ranks seventh in the country all-around with an NQS of 39.710. In five seasons, she’s amassed 13 individual wins on the uneven bars, 15 wins on the balance beam, 26 wins on the floor and 29 all-around titles. And, though sitting in a crowd while Worley succeeds at the highest of levels time and time again necessitates earplugs, Worley’s significance to this team and its community shines brightest in the quiet moments — the quest for improvement in practice, the encouraging of a teammate in the locker room, the waiting long after the end of a meet to ensure she’s signed every single poster every single child has asked her to sign.

“The leadership she provided for her team on the competition floor, her presence in the locker room, and the countless young girls motivated to chase their dreams by witnessing her achieve her goals are just a few of the impacts Raena had in her time here,” Garrison said in a statement. “It’s easy to see that she is an exceptional athlete. What isn’t as well known is that she is an outstanding person who elevates those around her with her kindness.”

Worley’s deep appreciation for what it means to be inspired by — and inspire — great gymnasts of the past, present and future reaches beyond personal and competitive success. She knows that it has the potential to redefine what something, or someone, is “supposed to be.”

“Within gymnastics, the whole realm of women’s sports, you know, always gymnastics is seen more as an aesthetic sport rather than the power sport most of the time,” Worley said. “But growing up, yeah, I’m short, I’m strong. I’ve never had the long lines that people desire. And I think that’s something that I can really be proud of myself for is I don’t have the typical aesthetic body that people look for, but not a lot of girls do. It’s common in the sport. So I think impacting the lives of young girls who may struggle with body image or mental state on how they look all the time. I think that is one of the big roles that I really would love to continue to have an impact on because it’s more common than people think.”

Worley will work to continue that impact in her professional life. After studying both kinesiology and sports communication, Worley hopes to stick with the sport in some form. “That is just what I’m called to do.” She would like to pursue collegiate-level coaching before someday using her background in sports communication in broadcast journalism, covering and bringing nuance to the sport that’s given her so much.

“I feel like having the insight that I do, I would love to be able to broadcast and talk about collegiate gymnastics,” Worley said. “Or even if I go into journalism a little bit more, give the perspective of the athletes that people try to give sometimes isn’t heard or really just get an authentic response from the athletes about why they do what they do.”

Kentucky’s Raena Worley is aiming for a return to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, where she finished seventh in the all-around scoring last year.
Kentucky’s Raena Worley is aiming for a return to the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, where she finished seventh in the all-around scoring last year.

NCAA Championships

Worley and her UK teammates will head to Fayetteville for the NCAA Arkansas Regional this week with high hopes.

Kentucky is the No. 7 overall seed in the 36-team NCAA Championships and will be joined in Fayetteville starting Thursday by No. 2 LSU, No. 10 Arkansas and No. 15 Minnesota along with unseeded teams from Arizona, Boise State, BYU, Oregon State and Nebraska.

Regionals will also get underway this weekend at Michigan, California and Florida.

The top two teams from each regional will receive an automatic berth to the national championships. In addition, the top all-around competitor and top event specialist from round two at each regional (who is not on a team advancing to nationals) will advance to the national championships.

The national championships will take place April 18-20 in Fort Worth, Texas.