A Gym'Back Original

FAYETTEVILLE -- Audra Loveless, one of the "Fabulous Five" Gym'Backs remaining from Arkansas' original class of 11 in 2002-03, will compete against No. 6 Georgia for the second time in Barnhill Arena on Friday night.

The undefeated Gym'Backs are ranked 12th -- within one place of their highest ranking ever -- and have come a long way since serving as sacrificial lambs for the Gym Dogs in 2003.

A big reason is Loveless, who boasts the fifth-best vault ever by a Gym'Back in competition -- a 9.850 against LSU last season -- and the sixth-best floor exercise (9.90), at last year's Gym'Back Invitational.

Loveless, a former valedictorian at Bridge Creek, Okla., is a product of the Bridge Creek Club team coached by former Olympian Bart Conner.

Far from burning out on gymnastics as some do, Loveless said, "It just keeps getting better. College is so much fun."

Along with junior teammates Dana McQuillin, Hannah McLeod, Katie Hardman and Melissa Leigh, Loveless has been able to experience the Barnhill Arena atmosphere for three seasons, including during this year's Gym'Back Gala.

The Gym'Backs finished fourth in the nation in home attendance in each of their first two seasons, and look forward to their official 2005 home debut at 7 p.m. Friday.

"We're definitely doing better this year," Loveless said. "We have a lot more team chemistry and more depth -- which makes it great fun. We've added a lot more difficulty to our routines, and other schools will see how much we've improved."

Loveless has narrowed her focus to the vault and floor exercise this season, although she still practices on the parallel bars. She no longer does the beam.

"I think colleges are recruiting more for one to two skills," Loveless said. "You need a specialty."

Loveless' specialty is the vault, in which she has posted steady scores of 9.775, 9.775 and 9.725 in UA wins at Minnesota, Kentucky and Auburn this season. Her technical proficiency has enabled her to benefit from the more stringent judging which has affected other teams this season.

"The judging is a lot tighter," Loveless said. "I just do my routines the way I do in practice. I can't control the judges. Our coaches (Mark and Rene Cook) are good at bringing us to a peak when it's time to peak."

Loveless comes from a family of achievers. Her mother, Daralyn Conner, was named the 2002 marketing teacher of the year in Oklahoma. Audra has two younger sisters, Brett and Cami, and the family enjoys outdoor activities as well as gymnastics.

"I'm a cowgirl," Loveless said. "I work cattle on the ranch, but I also like to sew and decorate pages in scrapbooks.

"I have horses and I ride for pleasure on our pastures and trails."

That's a good thing, because her fianc, Brian Bull, is an Oklahoma rancher who has 1,200 acres and 300 head of cattle.

"We're getting married in 2006," Loveless said.

By that time, she'll have her UA degree in kinesiology. Loveless carries a 3.6 grade-point average, and made her "third of fourth" 4.0 last semester.

It must be nice to have enough perfect semesters that you don't remember exactly how many.

After college, Loveless plans to become a physician's assistant.

"I'll do a two-year program, maybe at the University of Oklahoma," she said.

Loveless lives near Tuttle, Okla., about 30 minutes south of Oklahoma City, and a similar distance west of the OU campus at Norman.

Last year, Loveless was named a Women's Academic All-American by the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches.

Loveless will turn 21 in March, a couple of weeks before the SEC Championships at Duluth, Ga.

She'd like to be involved in the NCAA regionals on April 9, leading to the NCAA Meet at Auburn, Ala., on April 21-23.

But first things first -- a meeting with Georgia, last year's national runner-up.

"I'll just do like I do in every meet," Loveless said.

Said Rene Cook: "We'll try to hit all our routines, not count a fall, get good scores and keep improving."

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