Sharon Hundley still remembers bringing her 3-year-old daughter Amelia to work at her dance studio. Little Amelia watched intensely while mom taught class. She copied the older girls directly in front of her.
“She was still in diapers trying to do back handsprings and landing on her head,” Sharon Hundley recalled. “I thought ‘Oh God. She’s going to kill herself if we don’t get her into some kind of classes.’ That’s how it all started.”
Amelia hasn’t stopped. Within a year, dance evolved into gymnastics and an opportunity. She reached national heights over the ensuing 16 years, capped with an appearance at the Olympic Trials in July.
Now, she wants to make one last mark on the gymnastics world, this time at the collegiate level with the Florida Gators, before she hangs up the leotard for good.
Now, she wants to feel the glory of success one more time, this time at this weekend’s NCAA championships and this time as part of a team.
Now, she wants to not just join the ranks of All-Americans Kytra Hunter and Bridget Sloan as the next big name in Florida gymnastics. She wants to set the new standard.
“I hoped to come in and fill those shoes,” the 19-year-old freshman said. “I have the opportunity to be that good.”
'Always wanted to be better'
Who is Amelia Hundley?
She’s that 5-foot-5 dynamo for the third-ranked Gators, the all-arounder from Ohio who teammates say is the team’s “rock.”
She finishes her tumbling passes on the floor exercise with her arms to the side instead of over her head because her shoulders aren’t flexible.
Her favorite song is Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” a fitting choice considering where her gymnastics career began.
She’s the third of four children in the Hundley household — the only daughter — and has 29 cousins who live throughout the Cincinnati area. Her parents have been at every meet this season.
"After every event, she’ll look up at us and we’ll give her a smile and a thumbs up and wave," Sharon Hundley said. "She thinks we’re silly anyway. She’d be the same girl with or without us there.”
Her favorite subject in school is math because of its black-and-white, right-or-wrong nature — a stark contrast from the subjective realm of competitive gymnastics. After being homeschooled for most of her life while competing internationally, she relishes every opportunity to roam a campus with more than 50,000 students and take classes with other people.
“The girls think it’s funny that I walk out the door excited for class with my backpack on,” Amelia said.
When she’s not spying on teammates’ first dates to make sure everything goes well, Amelia spends her nights after practice catching up on homework and watching “Dancing with the Stars” or “Keeping up with the Kardashians” with her roommates. Netflix is the backup plan from there.
As for those dance skills she learned as a toddler? They’re still on display. During a bye in Florida’s NCAA regional competition on April 1, Amelia and the rest of Florida’s five newcomers had to perform an impromptu dance routine for the rest of the team. It’s a ritual that keeps spirits light and the team loose heading into the back half of the meet. Hundley led the charge.
“It was pretty lit,” Amelia said afterward through a laugh.
But the gymnast who teammates call “Meels” is also hypercritical of herself. The vibrant smile that is ever present on her face masks the internal criticisms she has every time she finishes a routine.
“I always wanted to be better,” Amelia said. “I never thought I was the best, so I always wanted to keep working.”
It’s that drive, she says, that had her training close to seven hours a day at one point in her career.
It’s that drive that helped her make the U.S. National Team at 16 despite not being up for consideration a year earlier.
And it’s that drive that had Rhonda Faehn, the former UF head coach and current vice president of Team USA Gymnastics, recruiting Amelia to the University of Florida when she was only an eighth grader.
“She just had this look to her,” Faehn said. “She was always enjoying herself while she was out there.”
'Reach the top of the sport'
Amelia’s career took off when she was 6, about three years after those impromptu lessons in the back of her mom’s dance studio.
Success was immediate, even if Amelia didn’t realize it.
A story her mom likes to share comes at the beginning of Amelia’s career. She was a Level 4 Elite gymnast, the entry level in the national competitive gymnastics realm. The young gymnasts received a ribbon after every meet, the color corresponding with their score.
Amelia noticed her friends received different colored ribbons each meet — sometimes blue, sometimes red, sometimes white. Hers were always blue, which represented the highest scoring range.
“She started crying one time when a judge handed her a blue ribbon because she wanted to have a rainbow of colors,” Sharon Hundley said. “It was never about the score with her.”
The scores kept coming, though, and she found herself rising through the ranks.
Third place at the 2012 Pacific Rim Championships as part of the United States’ Junior National Team at 14.
A promotion to the Senior National Team at 16.
A three-time medalist at the 2015 Pan-American Games at 17.
Ninth place at the Olympic Trials at 18.
“The goal was to reach the top of the sport,” she said.
Faehn credits Amelia’s success to her consistency on each apparatus. Amelia didn’t perform the toughest routines, but she knew where she needed to be and how to execute in order to remain competitive in the field.
“She was like a cat,” Faehn said. “She always knew where every landing was before it came.”
Amelia doesn’t think about that, though. She’s just having fun.
“We always laughed because we waited every day for her to say she didn’t want to go to the gym,” her mom said. “That day never came.”
'I want to be up there'
Amelia gets a fresh reminder of why she’s competing every time she walks into Florida’s gymnastics studio.
There’s the Perfect 10 wall, where 14 of Florida’s past and present gymnasts are immortalized on a royal blue background with a Gator head plastered in the middle.
There are the three smiling faces of Honda Award winners -- the Heisman Trophy of gymnastics -- that look on at every practice.
There are the plaques of team accomplishments: 10 Southeastern Conference championships, 13 Super Six appearances and three NCAA titles.
“I want to be up there someday,” she tells herself.
She’s on her way.
Amelia is already an All-American in her first season as a Gator. She has scored at least a 9.8 — the minimum score most gymnasts deem as acceptable for a quality routine — on all but one of her 47 routines this season.
“She came in as a competitor who we knew was very consistent, very solid, someone that we knew we could rely on,” second-year UF coach Jenny Rowland said. “She has been that person for us.”
That consistency is key in the world of college gymnasts. Unlike international competition, where gymnasts receive higher start values depending on the difficulty of the routine, just about everyone in the college sphere begins at the capped 10.0 mark as long as they meet the minimum requirements.
This forces judges to scrutinize every minor detail of the routine. Curled toes, feet separation, a minor bounce when trying to stick a landing, it all adds up.
“I can’t use this big skill to back me up if I make a mistake,” Amelia said. “The pressure is really on when you have to make every little thing count.”
That is especially true this weekend as the Gators compete in the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, where the top 12 teams in the country are fighting for the national title.
After winning three consecutive national championships, Florida fell flat on the big stage last year, finishing fourth. Amelia hopes to bring a spark to the Gators this time around.
She’s been doing it her whole career.
“If you’re talented, that’s good,” she said. “But that’s not going to get you to where you need to be.”