Like so many other college sports teams in 2020, the Nebraska women’s gymnastics program had closure stolen from them in what was a successful campaign.
COVID-19 shut down college athletics before the Huskers had Senior Night at the Devaney Center — a March 14 date with Denver that could’ve been the springboard for postseason success. The cancellation of the season especially stung for the team’s two seniors, Sierra Hassel and Taylor Houchin.
Hassel’s time representing the scarlet and cream isn’t over quite yet, though. Nearly six months after her season was cut short, Hassel is still representing Nebraska gymnastics as the Big Ten’s nominee for the NCAA Woman of the Year. Representing not only a university, but also a conference, for an award of this caliber is a major accomplishment, and Hassel was caught off guard by the nomination.
“I was surprised,” Hassel said. “I didn’t even know that this was an award, but after I did, I got excited. It’s a huge honor.”
The NCAA Woman of the Year award to the nation’s top senior female student-athlete that exceeds in academics, athletics, service and leadership.
“I’m very proud of her for receiving this nomination,” head coach Heather Brink said. “She’s worked extremely hard, not just in the gym and athletically, but in the classroom, volunteering in community outreach events, as well, as serving on our Student Athlete Advisory Committee’s board of directors, just to name a few.”
The award is open to athletes in Division I, II and III and works through a multi-level nomination process. First, each university nominates a female student-athlete to represent it. This year, a record 605 student-athletes were nominated. In the second round, the conferences select an athlete to represent them, which is where Hassel is now. The third round will be the Woman of the Year committee selecting 30 athletes — 10 from each division. The fourth round will then have the committee select nine finalists. The final round will then select the winner.
“It's cool to be a part of this group,” Hassel said. “Knowing that there are athletes all over the country who are doing so much makes me feel happy.”
Hassel finished her career with the second highest ranking in the Big Ten in floor exercises for the 2020 season. Hassel scored a career high 9.95 on floor exercises at home a week prior to the cancellation due to the coronavirus. She also finished her career with a score of 9.975 on beam and 9.8 in vault.
As for academics, service and leadership, Hassel earned numerous awards from both the university and the Big Ten. These awards include, the Nebraska Female Student-Athlete of the year in 2020, the Nebraska Gold Academic Medallion and the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award. Hassel also earned the Big Ten Medal of Honor and the Nebraska Heart and Soul Award.
Along with these awards, Hassel was also three time Academic All-Big Ten and made the Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll, and she was a part of the Tom Osborne Citizenship team for all four years.
“Sierra has always been a driven student-athlete,” Brink said. “Using her skills she has developed within the sport of gymnastics, like setting goals, commitment, drive, she has found her passion in pursuing a career with intercollegiate athletics.”
Hassel is proud of everything she’s accomplished while representing the Huskers. As for the Woman of the Year award, Hassel is happier with being nominated, and believes that Nebraska deserves recognition for producing great student-athletes.
“It shows what Nebraska puts into one as both an athlete and a student,” Hassel said. “This award is well-rounded with these pillars. Looking back on these four years, the school really put a lot into athletics, academics and life skills in general and serving the community. It’s what really helped me become a better person.”
While Hassel looks back on what Nebraska gave her and taught her, Brink looks forward to what Hassel’s accomplishments will mean to future generations of Husker gymnasts.
“I feel that Sierra has worked hard in her leadership to leave a legacy,” Brink said. “These incoming classes are watching her achieve these high honors and giving them a role model to look up to.”