AAI Award nominee Michaela Burton leads Pitt gymnasts


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Senior Michaela Burton holds the highest individual scores for the season on both bars and beam with a 9.850 and 9.925, respectively, and she has earned 10 individual event titles so far.

By Hope Matyas, For the Pitt News

American Athletic Inc. presents its AAI Award each year to “the most outstanding collegiate senior female gymnast in the country.” Essentially the Heisman Award of women’s gymnastics, the AAI Award nominees this year — as announced Monday — include Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross of UCLA and NCAA gymnastics legend Maggie Nichols of Oklahoma.

The list also includes Pitt senior Michaela Burton, who was surprised to find her name among the best in the business.

“I don’t think I did anything to be on there, but obviously somebody saw something,” she said.

Whether Burton herself believes she belongs in such elite company doesn’t matter — her qualifications speak for themselves. Her career-high scores can be found in the video announcement (at 0:06) with an incredible all-around of 38.850 out of the elusive perfect 40. NCAA head coaches will soon vote to narrow the list to the top 6 finalists.

The pressures of gymnastics as a sport can be enough to lose sight of one of the essential pieces to a successful season — everyone working as a team — but according to Burton’s teammates, her leadership ensures that everything runs smoothly. Burton arrived at Pitt just this season, making the move from Arkansas and the SEC to the EAGL conference for her senior year in hopes of finding a more supportive atmosphere.

The culture of Arkansas — currently ranked No. 20 nationally — was more focused on individual improvement and success. While Burton follows a strenuous training program to improve her skill set as an individual, team culture and camaraderie were not on the list of skills to maintain. Choosing to move schools and conferences has helped Burton fall back in love with the sport through a thriving team culture with coaches that work hard to do the best for their team, in and out of the gym.

“I didn’t want to feel forced to go to the gym my whole last year just to finish it out,” Burton said.

Transfering from a big-name SEC school to Pitt is an unlikely move from such a talented athlete in the eyes of NCAA women’s gymnastics enthusiasts — gymnasts will typically stay in the same conference to see the same level of competition from opponents should they transfer.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that all these schools are talented, just because they don’t have the SEC brand stamp on them, it doesn’t mean anything,” Burton said. “There are so many hidden gems here.”

Since the beginning of the 2020 competitive season, Burton has been a high-scoring anchor for Pitt’s team. She holds the highest individual scores for the season on both bars and beam with a 9.850 and 9.925, respectively. She has also earned 10 individual event titles. Her time at Arkansas was impressive as well, earning a top score of 9.800 on floor during the 2018 NCAA Regionals to help take Arkansas to the championships. Burton could again lead the charge at Regionals should Pitt gymnastics qualify.

The team got off to a rocky start this season, losing its first three meets, but teammates Olivia Miller and Alecia Petrikis both agree that Burton’s presence on the team is a main source for the team’s comeback and overcoming the confidence barriers and mental blocks that plague the sport. Pitt has rebounded from its early slump and now boasts a 5-4 overall record.

“I always say you can sink to your weakest link or rise to the highest energy — it goes hand in hand,” Petrikis said.

Since Burton’s arrival, her teammates have noticed an increased confidence among them. The results are higher scores and a collective attitude that Pitt gymnastics is on the come-up.

“This year I can feel there’s so much more confidence and poise when we go up and compete as opposed to going up and being nervous and not sure if everyone is going to hit,” Miller said. “I know whoever is up is best suited for the job.”

Helping her teammates find confidence in their hours of practices, lifts and workouts has affected the team’s outlook on competition as a whole. Burton believes that the most effective way to lead is by example.

“There is nothing that’s going to help your team other than doing what you practice every single day,” she said.

Miller added that there will be “big shoes to fill” once Burton graduates. But right now, the team is just focused on finishing this season out strong — and enjoying the fact that Burton is helping accomplish that goal.

“You can see that she has so much joy when she does this sport with people she loves, and it’s not her trying to do it on her own anymore,” Petrikis said.

Burton, Petrikis and Pitt’s three other seniors will be honored during senior night, Friday at 7 p.m., when the Panthers host West Virginia in a dual meet at the Fitzgerald Field House.