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Setting the Bar(s) High

Lauren Kent on the mat

Lauren Kent started taking gymnastics classes as a preschooler. For many of her classmates, tumbling proved a passing fancy. But the sport quickly hooked Kent.

By middle school, she was determined to compete in college gymnastics, on a scholarship. At NC State, she achieved that goal, and more – setting the bars high for herself, one might say.

As a junior, Kent was named Gymnast of the Year for the East Atlantic Gymnastics League (EAGL), the eight-university, NCAA-affiliated group in which the Wolfpack competes. She’s one of four NC State gymnasts to have received that honor.

Last month, she was among 95 current NC State student-athletes making up the inaugural class for the Chi Alpha Sigma honor society, with criteria that included a 3.40 or better cumulative grade-point average.

This past weekend, Kent graduated from Poole College of Management with a major in business administration, finance concentration, and a minor in accounting. She graduated summa cum laude with a 3.84 GPA as well as with her fourth consecutive inclusion as part of the All-EAGL scholastic team.

“Getting my scholarship really has meant a lot. It changed the trajectory of my life going forward,” Kent said. “It’s amazing how God orchestrated my whole life around gymnastics. It’s hard to put into words how big of an opportunity this school has been for me, in so many areas.

“It’s a hub of opportunities to grow, both within yourself and by finding something bigger than yourself to get involved in and passionate about. When you know that donors are investing in what you’re doing, it makes you want to work that much harder.”

A North Carolina native who was a Junior Olympic Nationals Qualifier for 2014, 2015 and 2016, ranking 17th in the nation in 2016, Kent never pictured herself as an NC State gymnast growing up.

But as a Holly Springs High School student undergoing the gymnastics recruitment process, everything seemed to align. She already loved the Triangle area, because of its relatively close proximity to both beaches and mountains.

When she began visiting NC State, it didn’t take long to envision herself as a member of the Pack.

[NC State is] a hub of opportunities to grow, both within yourself and by finding something bigger than yourself to get involved in and passionate about.

“Something that stood out was how the team interacted and how people on campus interacted,” Kent said. “The vibe was just very welcoming. People seemed to want to help other people, and support each other. The resources, the facilities and the respect shown to the athletes – I just had a good feeling here and it wasn’t only for gymnastics.

“I wanted to be somewhere that would help me become a well-rounded person while continuing my passion to compete.”

During her time at the university, Kent was a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and was very active in the local chapter of Athletes in Action.

Between her classes and gymnastics, there was little time for more. The competition season runs January through April, but much of the year, the team practices four or five days a week – for four hours at a time. Kent’s family joked sometimes that gymnastics was her full-time job.

The at-times-grueling work, though, paid off. For part of her sophomore and all of her junior year, Kent competed in the all-around. Many of her individual highlights came during that junior year, when, in addition to EAGL Gymnast of the Year, she made EAGL first-team in bars and all-around and second team in balance beam while notching 17 podium finishes and four individual titles.

In addition to the All-EAGL Scholastic Team, she was a Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association Academic All-American.

This year, with recurring back injuries, Kent focused on bars. COVID-19 also altered her senior season, from strict travel and testing protocols to fans-free competitions. The Wolfpack was determined, though, to make the season fun and worthwhile.

“I’m grateful to have competed in Reynolds and on the road,” Kent said. “I’m definitely leaving here with no regrets.”

Her best NC State gymnastics memory, in fact, came during this unusual, slightly shortened season’s regional meet in Athens, Georgia.

Teams with the best regular-season scores are usually automatically advanced to the second day of the three-day event. This year, the Wolfpack was disappointed to be slotted to compete on the day one; no team competing the first day had advanced to the third and final one since the current format was adopted in 2018-19.

“We knew we had to go in and fight for every tenth, and really pull together,” Kent said. “The seniors knew it was our last time and we went in as the underdogs, which made it all the sweeter.”

The team earned an NCAA Regional Finals berth by recording a 196.775 that tied the sixth-best score in NC State history and marked the highest score NC State has earned at a regional. Kent tied her career-best on bars with a 9.900 as part of the effort.

The Wolfpack ended the season ranked 15th in the nation, its best team finish in two decades.

This summer, Kent is excited to spend more time with family and friends, especially ones she hasn’t seem in quite some time. She is solidifying next steps as she continues her part-time job as an accounting clerk, but with her competitive gymnastics career over, she’s looking forward to what’s to come in the near future.

When she started college, Kent considered majoring in psychology, or aiming toward a coaching or teaching career. She realized, though, that her talents and skills didn’t quite match up with those professions.

After a visit to Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Wilmington as a high school student, something clicked about matching her head and her heart, and that conviction grew during her NC State years. The small but growing chain’s coffee shops are run by employees with intellectual and development disabilities.

Kent has been a dedicated volunteer for the Special Olympics program since middle school, starting through her gymnastics club team.

“My eyes really opened here to the possibilities of a business degree and entrepreneurship,” she said. “I thought that I could connect with my passion in a different way, and I really got motivated to consider other opportunities to make an impact on people’s lives.”

Her long-term dream is an administrative or financial role with Special Olympics on the national or international level, or work as a financial adviser for families with special-needs members.

All in all, Kent feels she struck gold close to home when she chose NC State.

“When you’re visiting a college, don’t come in with a certain mindset. Don’t think I’m going to this college because of this one thing,” she said. “NC State is really well-rounded and there are incredible opportunities. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see just how bright it is here.”

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