Women’s college gymnastics has never had a year like this one. The sport has been shown live on TV for several hours every weekend. Attendance at meets has been steadily climbing every week, with many teams selling out their venues. While much of the media attention, thus far, has been lavished upon the Olympians who compete in the NCAA—especially UCLA’s gold medal duo of Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross—the story here is bigger than the Olympic stars who headline a few of the teams. In 2017, women’s NCAA gymnastics is genuinely more exciting and more competitive than it has ever been.
This weekend, St. Louis hosts the country’s top female college gymnasts for the NCAA Championships. The semifinals, which are today, will be divided into two sessions, with six teams going in the afternoon and the other half in the evening. Top three finishers in each session advance to the Saturday’s “Super Six” finals.
From its start in 1982 up until 2013, only four teams had ever won the NCAA title—Utah, UCLA, Georgia, and Alabama. Of that group, UCLA was the most recent member, winning its first championship in 1997. For over a decade after the Bruins’ breakthrough into the top echelon, these four teams maintained their stranglehold on the championship. UCLA won four titles between 2000 and 2004. After that, Georgia won five straight titles from 2005-2009. In 2013, Florida, which had previously entered a couple of championships as the favorites, finally managed to break the foursome’s stranglehold on the sport.
After Florida’s milestone, it didn’t take another 10 years for a different team to join the top group; it happened the following year when Oklahoma tied with the Gators for the championship. The door wasn’t slammed closed behind Florida, the way it was after UCLA broke through; the fact that more teams can and have won in the last decade is good for the overall health of NCAA gymnastics.
But the tussle at the top isn’t even as interesting as what has happened in the middle of the pack over the last couple of years. First of all, with new additions at the top of collegiate gymnastics, some of the former perennials have been pushed down. Georgia, which had won 10 NCAA championships under Suzanne Yoculan, is now considered a mid-pack player. Ditto for Utah and Alabama. They all have great gymnasts and standout performers but these once-regular winners don’t really have a chance at taking the top spot this year. They’re more in the “happy to make the Super Six” kind of space. And if they’re forced to count a fall—in college gym, six gymnasts compete on each event, and the five top scores count toward the team total—they’ll be out of the final if their opponents go clean.
And at the same time the former champions are trying to get back into title-contender shape, more teams are rising up from the lower echelons to put up big scores—their highest in their respective programs’ histories—to take spots at Championships. This year, Washington qualified after a stellar season under first year head coach Elise Ray, a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist and a former Michigan star. It will be their first appearance since 1998. The University of Denver is back at championships for the first time in nearly 10 years, finishing one-tenth of a point behind Utah at regionals. Boise State, which spent much of the season looking like it would qualify to championships for the first time ever, just missed qualification at regionals two weeks ago. The Flippin’ Birds of Southern Utah University almost upset Alabama to qualify for nationals. Of course, the potential upset wouldn’t have even been a possibility had Alabama not faltered on vault, but the fact that it was a team like SUU and not a traditional power tells you a lot about the increased competitiveness throughout the NCAA. (This list is by no means comprehensive—many teams this year had incredible seasons but were unable to make it through to championships due to the quality of the field and the limited number of championships berths.)
The reason we’re seeing more teams outside of the traditional powers do so well in recent years has a lot to do with the overall strength of gymnastics in the U.S. Most of the media attention is understandably heaped on elite gymnastics, the kind you watch at the Olympics. But the elites, as their name suggests, are a small group. They are the one-percenters of the competitive gymnastics population in this country. There are approximately 125,000 registered gymnasts competing across all levels and disciplines but the vast majority—approximately 75 percent of them—are female artistic gymnasts. The numbers show a significant increase in participation over the last 15 years. Back in 2000, there were just 75,000 competitive gymnasts in the U.S. The talent pool from which the NCAA recruits from has gotten a lot deeper.
At any given time, only 30-80 of the competitive gymnasts nationally are elites. But drop down a notch to Level 10, the level at which NCAA gymnasts are recruited, and the number shoots up to over a thousand. In 2009, there were 1,684 Level 10 gymnasts and just 79 elites. And in 2017, the number of registered Level 10s in the U.S. is 3,005, nearly double what it was eight years ago. Simply put, there are now a lot of high-level gymnasts in the United States, more than enough to fill out the rosters of several NCAA programs, not just the top ones. (Note: Some gymnasts will qualify for elite but not compete as such. Or some will spend one or two seasons at that level but drop down to Level 10 for a season or two before they head off to college.)
While all of the current top teams have international stars in the mix—top ranked Oklahoma boasts Maggie Nichols and Brenna Dowell, members of the 2015 gold-winning world championships team, Utah has 2016 Olympic alternate MyKayla Skinner, and UCLA has, of course, Kocian and Ross, these elites can’t carry a program to the championships by themselves. They need those strong Junior Olympic gymnasts to fill out their lineups, especially since many international elites, who endured more grueling training at the club level, tend to be more injury-prone than their L10 sisters. Utah, which has gotten hit hard by injuries this season, has had to rely on Skinner—who is shockingly healthy for an elite who went through the entire Olympic training and selection process—on every event in every meet and is not really part of the title picture. (If they could put her up twice in a rotation, they would. Maybe they can hologram a double, Tupac-style.)
And for all the articles written about their Olympians—the Bruins also have Canadian almost-Olympian Peng Peng Lee and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber as their student-assistant coach—UCLA isn’t heading into Championships with a real shot at the title either. Ross and Kocian have boosted the Bruin lineup on bars, which had previously been a serious weakness for the team, and they’ve helped maintain UCLA’s standard of excellence on beam, but they haven’t been able to do much for the floor and vault lineups, which are below the level of the other top teams. An Olympic gold medalist certainly adds to the quality and prestige of a program, but it doesn’t guarantee a championship.
In fact, Oklahoma, which is expected to win on Saturday, rose to prominence over the last decade mostly on the shoulders of gymnasts that no one had really heard of previously. When KJ Kindler arrived at OU from Iowa State (which she led to the Super Six for the first time in program history), the team was hardly a recruiting powerhouse. Kindler took over the program from Steve Nunno, who is best known for being the mustache who coached five-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller in the ‘90s. Nunno resigned right around the time that Oklahoma admitting to violating NCAA rules regarding practice hours, though he claimed his resignation had nothing to do with this violation. (College gymnasts’ training hours are capped at 20 per week; Oklahoma gymnasts exceeded this under Nunno.) Kindler walked into a good program but, by no means, a top-five team. And OU certainly wasn’t a magnet for the best recruits in the country. (Though it definitely is now.) Kindler built up the program with the help of what a popular gymnastics blogger called “ninja Level 10s”: The talented gymnasts who weren’t precocious enough to get recruited in ninth or tenth grade—though gymnasts can’t sign their national letters of intent until senior year, many verbally commit to schools as early as age 14—but sort of sneak up on everyone by improving significantly throughout their college careers.
LSU, the second-ranked squad in the country, relies heavily on the contributions of its Level 10s. Like OU and UCLA, they’ve got the elites—2012 Olympic alternate Sarah Finnegan, 2016 British Olympian Ruby Harrold, and 2012 junior national champion Lexie Priessman, to name a few—but most of their big scores are coming from Level 10s such as Ashleigh Gnat, Myia Hambrick, Sydney Ewing, McKenna Kelley (who is the daughter of 1984 Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton) and freshman Kennedi Edney. Any other year, they’d be a shoo-in to win it and give their coach D-D Breaux her first NCAA title in 40 years of coaching. (The trophy would go quite well her gold tiger print wardrobe.) But Oklahoma is really unbeatable unless they falter.
That Olympic-level talent doesn’t necessarily translate to success in the NCAA is good for the competitiveness and unpredictability of college gymnastics. It’s a numbers game, and that NCAA gym favors the many Level 10s (who are still freakishly talented compared to the general population) has allowed the sport to grow in participation and popularity. And for an Olympic sport to survive college sports budget cuts, this really matters. As former Utah head coach Greg Marsden told me for my book, “It doesn’t matter who wins. It matters that a lot of people have a chance to win and that it’s a kickass event.”