A Eulogy of Women’s NCAA Gymnastics

My relationship with NCAA Gymnastics was not a first-sight love. Being passionate about elite gymnastics, I used to find collegiate gymnastics an easier and cheaper version of it. Where are the hard skills, I would ask myself. Where is the seriousness, the drama, the not-so-hidden pain? Why do these women look so happy? Is achievement in gymnastics but a spark of light after a dark and tortuous journey? Alas, these were my thoughts.

When so many of my favourite elite gymnasts started to move to college to get what a lot of elite coaches think ephemeral – an education, I decided to beat nostalgia by paying more attention to women’s NCAA gymnastics, its morale, its goals, its history. And a new world unfolded before my eyes.

Because NCAA Gymnastics has a history and a beauty of its own. It is a story of hard work and determination. It is a story of fight, of perseverance, of joys and defeats. But it is also a story of entertainment and fun, of show business and mad excitement. And most importantly, it is the story of young girls who become beautiful women, and of their coaches, who help them in the quest to become happy, healthy and responsible adults. This, and much more, I discovered watching the NCAA. This, and much more, this blog will cover.

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The NCAA introduced women’s gymnastics as a championship sport in 1982 and is formed of three divisions. After a ten-week season and their respective Conference championships, Division I team qualify, on the basis of their ranking, for the Regional championships. The top-two finishers from each Regional competition (a total of twelve teams) win a spot to compete at the NCAA National championships in two semi-finals. The top-three teams from each semi-final qualify for the Super Six final, where one champion is crowned every year. The current champion is Oklahoma University. Division II and Division III teams also have their own national championships. Division II teams compete at the USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate Championships in two semi-final sessions, formed of four teams each. The top-two from each session advances to the final, where a team champion is crowned. The current champion is Texas Woman’s. After two regional competitions, twelve Division III teams compete at the NCGA Championships semi-finals. The top-six teams compete in the final. The current champion is the University of Winsconsin-Whitewater.

Under the NCAA, only six teams have won the NCAA title so far. The University of Georgia, led by the now volunteer coach (it is a complicated story…) Suzanne Yoculan, is the most successful team with ten victories (1987, 1989, 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009); the University of Utah, led by now retired head coach Greg Marsden, is second with nine (1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1994, 1995); the University of Alabama, coached by Sarah Patterson, now retired, won six (1988, 1991, 1996, 2002, 2011, 2012); UCLA, coached by Valorie Kondos Field, also won six (1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2010); the University of Florida won three under Rhonda Faehn (2013, 2014, 2015); and so did the University of Oklahoma, the current champion, led by K. J. Kindler (2014, 2016, 2017).

Of these six legendary coaches, only two are still head of their teams: UCLA’s Miss Val and Oklahoma’s K. J. Kindler. Utah’s Greg Marsden retired in 2015 and was replaced by his wife Megan Marsden and Tom Farden. Georgia’s Suzanne Yoculan retired in 2009. The Gymdogs have had a series of coaching dramas since then, but things could change this year, with the return of former gymnast star and Olympian Courtney Kupets-Carter as head coach, and of Suzanne Yoculan herself as voluntary coach (if your eyebrows are raised right now, you are not the only one!). Alabama’s Sarah Patterson retired in 2014 and was replaced by the amazing Dana Duckworth, who was a former Bama gymnast herself. Florida’s Rhonda Faehn also unexpectedly left her team in 2015 after winning her third consecutive title for a job at USA Gymnastics, and was replaced by Jenny Rowland, who was previously at Auburn.

The only other team that in recent years got close to win an NCAA title is D-D Breaux’s LSU, which finished second in 2016 and 2017. In 2017, after a stellar semi-final that qualified them to the Super Six in first place, the Tigers were very close to win the title, but could not quite repeat their semi-final performance in the final, losing to Oklahoma (and breaking my heart).

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So, what is so peculiar about collegiate gymnastics? NCAA Gymnastics differs from elite gymnastics in two main aspects. First, it is a Level 10 competition, rather than an elite level one. Routines then include less requirements and skills, and gymnasts have more time to focus on expressiveness and to show off their personality. And second, and most importantly, it is mainly a team competition. The all around title, as well as individual apparatus titles, are awarded at the NCAA championships, and the top gymnasts in the nation are honoured at the end of the regular season, but individual titles are not as prestigious as the team title. In college everything is about the team and university pride.

Many elite gymnastics fans regard NCAA Gymnastics with a certain condescension, because, being it a Level 10 competition, it looks ‘easier’ and gymnasts do not usually compete F- or more rated skills (even though Utah’s MyKayla Skinner competed a tucked double double on floor last season and UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi a laid-out full twist on beam!). In fact, NCAA gymnastics is as hard as elite gymnastics, but in a different way. While elite gymnasts compete only a few times a year, NCAA gymnasts are required to compete every weekend for at least three months. Their bodies are under an enormous amount of stress, and competing at Level 10 is a necessity: they would never be able to compete at an elite level every weekend for three months!

Additionally, NCAA gymnasts’ bodies are nearly as strong as elite ones. NCAA gymnasts spend hours in the gym working on their muscles, through cardio, weight lifting and physiotherapy. The strength they gain is once again necessary to compete for twelve to sixteen weeks in a row.

Another reason why many elite gymnastics fans do not appreciate NCAA Gymnastics as much is that it has nothing of the dramatic classical performances of the Soviet and Romanian gymnastics golden age. It lacks its decadent beauty and the subtle sorrow such beauty conveys. It is basically a very American product!

I am afraid our nostalgic friends are right, but why would this difference be a source of complaint? After all, the NCAA is uniquely American. The NCAA has turned gymnastics into a show, which is no real surprise, as in the U.S. everything can be turned into a show! Most of these women do not come from a ballet background, but they bring to the competition floor tons of energy, sparkling personality and entertainment. And rather than complaining, we should go along and enjoy it too. NCAA gymnasts work super hard in the gym and have to balance both training and school, why should they not enjoy competing and show it? Moreover, an elite gymnast will never give you the delirious shot of energy that an NCAA gymnast does when she sticks a landing and drowns in her teammates’ cheers and hugs.

Some routines are so fun to watch that they also reach people who are not normally interested in gymnastics. This is in itself a bonus for the sport, as it increases the general awareness of and interest for gymnastics around the globe. UCLA’s Sophina DeJesus’s 2016 floor routine went viral on YouTube in 2016, and Sophina was even invited on the Ellen Show!

Finally, nostalgic fans will appreciate the fact that NCAA Gymnastics retains the old elite 10-scoring system. Each routine is scored out of 10, 10.0 being the perfect score. NCAA gymnasts spend hours and hours doing repetitions, in order to perfect their routines. And, as Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols put it, to compete a ‘perfect’ routine is as hard as to compete a very difficult elite level routine.

A lot of former elite athletes compete in college gymnastics. This is no new phenomenon, most elite gymnasts tend to transition to NCAA once they are done with elite, and statistically they tend to be the ones winning big (with honourable exceptions, of course). What is remarkable these days, however, is the number of very famous gymnasts competing in the NCAA. Freshmen last year alone, for instance, included Olympic gold medallists Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian (UCLA), world champions, such as Maggie Nichols (Oklahoma) and MyKayla Skinner (Utah), and foreign Olympians, such as Ruby Harrold from Great Britain (LSU) and New Zealand’s Courtney McGregor (Boise State). In 2018, we will have the pleasure to see, among others, world champion Alyssa Baumann (Florida), Germany’s Olympic alternate Pauline Tratz (UCLA) and junior U.S. all around champions Bailie Key (Alabama) and Jazmyn Foberg (Florida).

Finally, the NCAA is for many gymnasts a school of life. There, coaches take on a mentor role, in order to lead their athletes through the last stages of adolescence to become responsible adults. Gymnasts learn to respect each other, to rely on each other and fight for each other. They learn to be confident, independent and to bring out their inner self. They become proud of their differences, and make a strength out of it. They learn that failure is part of life, and that to get up again after a fall is more important than a straight victory. Some of the most inspiring words in the NCAA have come from Alabama’s head coach Dana Duckworth, who, after two disappointing rotations at the 2017 Super Six, was asked what she had told her gymnasts and replied: ‘I told them that gymnastics is what they do, it’s not what they are. And that I will love them anyway, regardless of the result today’.

(A previous version of this article was published on WOGymnastikA)

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