Graduation lineup: Jeremiah Sirles, Dennis Leblanc and Lora Evenstad.
By Randy York
As different as Nebraska’s student-athlete speakers looked for Saturday’s luncheon to celebrate spring commencement exercises, Dennis Leblanc could not have selected more appropriate spokespeople to frame up what life is like as a Husker. Nebraska’s senior associate athletic director for Academics, Leblanc selected Lora Evenstad to represent UNL’s female graduates and Jeremiah Sirles to represent the male graduates. Talk about incongruity. The diminutive 5-foot-3 Evenstad is a good 15 inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Sirles. She’s also roughly one-third his size, if that. Here’s the kicker though. Football is Evenstad’s favorite sport to watch, and it looks like the Husker All-America gymnast just might end up living in Nebraska, along with her parents, who are strongly considering moving from Grand Forks, N.D., to Lincoln when they retire.
In her short speech to fellow graduates Saturday, Evenstad thanked God, her parents, Chance Unger, her family, Tom Osborne, Shawn Eichorst, her coaches and teammates and NU’s incomparable staff support in Life Skills, Academics and Compliance. She congratulated all student-athletes who embraced Nebraska’s holistic approach to academics, athletics and life and then went on to describe her Nebraska Experience and the impact it has on the promising future she has systematically carved out.
Evenstad will marry Chance Unger, a former Nebraska student athletic trainer, in August. While she works to become a registered dietician, he will begin his University of Nebraska Medical Center journey in Omaha to become a doctor. Evenstad may be tiny, but she dreams big, competes big and delivers big. The Grand Forks, N.D., native has the same passion for Nebraska as Darin Erstad, a Jamestown, N.D., native who fell in love with Lincoln and moved back after spending 14 years in Major League Baseball. Erstad, of course, is now Nebraska’s head baseball coach.
Evenstad’s Parents Never Missed a Competition
"I love Nebraska," said Evenstad, who can’t wait to apply her passion for nutrition and wellness in one of the state’s two largest cities. In Saturday’s speech, Evenstad pointed out how her parents, Dean and Vicky, never missed seeing her compete from 7-years-old through her final competition as a Husker – more than 200 meets in all.
“We have a map at home with pins stuck where we’ve watched Lora compete – from California to Florida and from Washington to Pennsylvania,” Dean said. “We’ve been all over the country, but there was no place like Lincoln.”
Evenstad pointed out how she first dreamed of competing for the Huskers when she was a sixth-grader. She attended Nebraska camps in the summer and competitive meets in the winter. Lora and her parents remember how exciting it was to see Lincoln’s skyline after a 500-mile drive from North Dakota.
“I call Lincoln a mini-metro,” Lora said, “because it has a metropolitan flavor but still feels like the right size of city … smaller and friendlier.”
Her dad agrees. “Vicky and I have grown to love Lincoln,” he said. “Our goal is to retire here. It’s an unbelievable city … a very progressive city. We’ve always liked it.”
For Evenstad, Life at Nebraska More than Winning
As much as Lora grew up loving Nebraska, she was encouraged to take recruiting visits so she could compare Nebraska with other top-tier gymnastics programs. She had all kinds of options and ended up taking official visits to NCAA powers Michigan, Nebraska and Utah and also checked out Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa State and North Carolina State.
“We never took it for granted that Lora was going to come here,” Nebraska Head Women’s Gymnastics Coach Dan Kendig said after listening to Evenstad’s speech on Saturday. “I think the more she looked around, the more it confirmed what she had felt all along. She knew what she wanted to do. She knew how to do it, and she knew how to get others to help get it done. Faith played such a big role in her life as a student and an athlete. She’s one of the most talented young ladies we’ve ever had here. She led us to the last Big 12 championship and the first Big Ten championship in back-to-back years.”
In her speech, Evenstad talked about her recruitment and how “Tom Osborne blew me away” with the dramatic transformation of Nebraska’s gymnastics facilities. “We went from tin lockers, magnetic shelves and bean bag chairs to 2,000 more square feet of training space that included carpet, a lounge, TVs and TiVos,” she said. “It definitely takes the recruiting game up a few notches. We’re right there with anybody on a national basis and our student-life complex is the best in the country. We’ve always been a great program, but it just keeps getting better every year. I expect great things.”
Evenstad takes one more chapter out of Osborne’s book. “Competing at Nebraska is about so much more than winning,” she told her fellow graduates. “For me, it became an opportunity to impact the community and prepare for the future. Having the opportunity to be a student-athlete at Nebraska was such an honor and is so much more than becoming a national champion, winning conference titles or being named an All-American. It’s an opportunity to impact others, and each step of the journey has definitely prepared me for life after gymnastics.”
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May 2013 Nebraska Women Student-Athlete Graduates
Evenstad, Lora (Women’s Gym) - Grand Forks, N.D. (Dietetics/Nutrition, Exercise & Health Science)
Furlan, Jessica (Track & Field/Cross Country) - Regina, Saskatchewan (Environmental Studies)
Hagemann, Ashley (Softball) - Elkhorn, Neb.(Elementary Education/Coaching)
Hamik, Erica (Track & Field/Cross Country) - Kearney, Neb. (Nutrition Science)
Harmon, Kailey (Swimming & Diving) - Bothell, Wash. (Nutrition, Exercise & Health Science)
Hubl, Paige (Volleyball) - Lincoln, Neb. (Business Administration)
Keiser, Katie (Women’s Golf) - Gothenburg, Neb. (Sociology)
Kim, Joyce (Rifle) - Gilbert, Ariz. (Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design)
Larson, Kelsey (Swimming & Diving) - Newport Beach, Calif. (Biochemistry)
Mickelson, Kristi (Bowling) - Bellevue, Neb. (Criminology & Criminal Justice/Psychology)
Moore, Lindsey (Women’s Basketball) - Covington, Wash. (Communication Studies)
McNeal, Allison (Volleyball) - Schulenberg, Texas (Elementary Education)
Southworth, Megan (Softball) - Papillion, Neb. (Speech-Language Pathology)
Weinreich, Janine (Women’s Tennis) - Tespe, Germany (Marketing/International Business)
Weinstein, Stefanie (Women’s Tennis) - Much, Germany (Business Administration)
White, Katie (Track & Field/Cross Country) - Broken Bow, Neb. (Nutrition Science)
Woltersdorf, Katelyn (Rifle) - Battle Ground, Wash. (Art)
Workman, Haley (Softball) - Easley, S.C. (Psychology)
Wright, Kirby (Softball) - Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. (Marketing)