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Gymnastics Doesn't Need A Safety Valve

Photo: Ben Liebenberg (Associated Press)

This weekend, UCLA women’s gymnastics defeated their Pac-12 rival Oregon State in Corvallis, which was hardly an unexpected result given that the Bruins were ranked third heading into the competition and the Beavers were 20th. En route to this victory, the Bruins scored 197.9, a season high for them. But despite this high team total, Saturday’s competition was hardly a perfect outing, despite 2012 Olympic gold medalist Kyla Ross scoring another Perfect 10 on bars. During the meet, junior Felicia Hano fell on her first collegiate outing on that apparatus and scored a 9.2 after a half-point penalty for falling was applied. This score was dropped from the team total.

After the bars rotation was done, the commentator said, “UCLA survived the fall. They didn’t have to count it.” That’s because the rules in college gymnastics state that six gymnasts go up on each event but only the top five count towards the team total. Basically, you’re allowed to throw out the first—or third or sixth—pancake every event.

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I know this might sound radical, but in an athletic contest, every moment you’re on the field of play should matter. You shouldn’t be able to literally erase a mistake!

It should be noted that this rule isn’t exclusive to women’s college gymnastics. Some version of it exists at the elite level too. In qualifications for finals, teams put up four gymnasts on each apparatus and the top three count toward the qualification score. This serves to determine which team makes it into finals. But in the medal round, the rules are different—three gymnasts go up on each event, and all three scores count. In men’s college gymnastics, they sort of split the baby—up until Week 8 of the season, the low score gets dropped. After that, all scores count. This gives teams the opportunity to test people out, take some risks and then eventually settle their lineups for the latter part of the season.

But in women’s college gymnastics, they throw out the low score from the very first meet of the season til the very end of national championships. “In 1977, college gymnastics went from three of six scores to counting four of six. In 1983, they went to counting five of six,” Greg Marsden, the former head coach of the University of Utah women’s gymnastics team, told me. Marsden helped start the program in 1976 and stayed at the helm for 40 years until he retired at the end of the 2015 season.

“I have always been in favor [of] counting five of five but would also support counting six of six, which may require additional scholarships,” he added. (Right now, Division I gymnastics programs are capped at 12 scholarships per team. Compare that to another highly injurious college sport—football—with its 85 scholarships.)

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Last year, the University of Georgia was dealing with several injuries to members of their team and at times could only put up five (relatively) healthy athletes on each event, which meant they had no low score to drop. Every gymnast who went up had to hit.

But typically it’s like this: if one of the gymnasts falls during a rotation, the next one, two, or three gymnasts have to rally and hit to keep that score from counting towards the overall team total. “The pressure situation that tests each team is how they respond after a fall in the line-up.” Kathy Johnson Clarke, 1984 Olympic medalist and regular commentator for the SEC Network’s Friday Night Heights gymnastics coverage, wrote in an email.

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When the rest of the team hits cleanly in order to nullify the fall, it’s often discussed in terms of teamwork, of having each other’s back. It is that, but it would be the same thing if the next three gymnasts after a fall all hit the best sets of their life in order to stop the point hemorrhage. It’s not like it’s part of any team’s strategy to make a mistake and rely on dropping a score in order to maintain a respectable team total; the goal for each gymnast is to hit, with or without the possibility of dropping a score.

The strategy that most teams use goes something like: Start with a consistent performer in the first spot to get the ball rolling and set a high baseline score and then build from there. The idea is that you’re supposed to build in scores as move down your lineup. If all gymnasts hit, the lowest score should be the first and the highest should be the last. As commentators frequently remind viewers, the judges tend to “leave room” for a better performance further down the lineup.

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According to this thinking, a fall disrupts the building of scoring momentum, so even if you drop that low mark, the penalty is that your last gymnast might not get as high a mark as they would otherwise earn had all five athletes who preceded them hit.

This suggests that judges, rather than evaluating each routine on its own merits, are concerned with the strategy of each individual team—that a stellar gymnast who is put up early in the lineup might be “underscored” and a mediocre gymnast who follows a stronger one might experience a scoring bump if she hits on the strength of her teammate’s earlier performance. The judges shouldn’t be leaving “room” for better routines further down the lineup. Nor should they be reacting to the previous routine while judging the next gymnast. The only thing the judges should be doing is evaluating the routine placed in front of them with no regard for what came before or what is to come later.

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If you can no longer drop the low score, Johnson Clarke worries that you might end up seeing less daring routines. “I have had conversations with college coaches about determining line-ups, particularly on beam. Do you put someone in who actually has the most beautiful or interesting beam routine or do you just put in someone who is going to hit even though it’s not a particularly great routine?”

“I would like them to be able to take a risk sometimes because it’s worth it. For the athlete. For the sport. For life,” she continued. And, as she noted, the rules already have no way to reward a lot of the difficulty on display from the top gymnasts. If those athletes didn’t have the “safety valve” of dropping a low score, would they bring out their more daring tricks when easier ones would possibly garner a higher score?

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She is right. Eliminating the dropped score could lead to some athletes and coaches choosing a more conservative approach. That certainly is a potential downside to changing the rule in the way I suggested.—and it could, as she noted, lead to the lowest score determining the outcome of competitions.

“Who had the highest low scores? I’m not sure that is the best way to determine the winner of a team event either,” Johnson Clarke pointed out.

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Counting all routines, hit or miss, might serve to increase the margins of victory, which tend to be quite minuscule in women’s college gymnastics. Last year’s NCAA championships were decided by a fraction of a point—.0375 to be exact—with UCLA barely edging defending champion Oklahoma on the strength of senior Peng Peng Lee’s Perfect 10 on balance beam. (She also recorded a 10 on the uneven bars that night.)

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But what you don’t see in the 198+ score the Bruins recorded was that they had two falls—one from Ross on floor and one from 2016 Olympic gold medalist Madison Kocian on beam. Both those marks were dropped, per the rules, and they clearly didn’t impact the rest of the scores in the lineup based on the result. If your falls are spread out over more than one event, they’re not going to have the same impact on your team total than if two happen on the same apparatus. Something about that seems plain wrong—a fall is a fall is a fall.

I’m not arguing that UCLA shouldn’t have won the championships last year. They won by the rules in place at the time, and they perhaps would’ve gone with a different strategy and lineup had they been in a situation where all scores counted and still could’ve won. Also, second-place Oklahoma had a fall from Nicole Lehrmann on beam that didn’t find its way into the final tally either. LSU, which placed fourth, was the most consistent in the final. “I saw that LSU would have won had all six scores counted at [the] Super Six [Final] last year,” Johnson Clarke noted. “They were a really good team, but I’m not sure I thought of them as the best team that night.

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Over the last five years, LSU has been one of the highest-ranked teams in the country. It is the defending SEC champion. (In college gymnastics, the SEC is the most competitive conference, so winning that title means a lot.) But in all of its program history, it has yet to win an NCAA title. Head coach D-D Breaux has been at the helm for more than 40 years and is clearly holding on until LSU finally wins the big title. Since 1982 when women’s gymnastics became an NCAA sport, only six teams have won the national championship. (And up until 2013, that number was just four.) Given that there are so many good teams at the top and it can be hard to distinguish between them at times, eliminating the dropped score, if only for the postseason, has the potential to result in upsets and new teams sneaking in.

“It would make meets less predictable and therefore more exciting for a greater number of teams, especially in the postseason,” Marsden said.

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But Johnson Clarke would like to see other changes. “In my opinion, there are other ‘fixes’ that need to come first and those would enough stress since it would expose weaknesses that exist in the system.”

For example? “Deduct for flaws,” Johnson-Clarke said.

If you catch a glimpse of gymnastics twitter over the weekend during NCAA season, you’ll see regular complaining about scores, especially overscoring of obviously flawed routines from gymnasts who compete for top teams. Those gymnasts don’t seem to receive the same deductions as athletes who compete on lower ranked teams.

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For instance, this beam routine from Bre Showers, a member of Oklahoma’s team that placed second to UCLA last season, somehow scored a 9.575 despite the fact that she clearly fell on the apparatus, which is a mandatory .5 deduction. (It’s the same as a fall from the apparatus.)

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The score she received simply isn’t possible if she was properly deducted for the error.

While I wholeheartedly agree with with Johnson Clarke that the judging at the collegiate level really needs to be cleaned up, I don’t see how this is an either/or proposition. The judging does need to be improved and we need to start thinking about eliminating the “safety valve” of dropping a missed routine.

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“There is no perfect way in a subjectively scored sport to satisfy everyone’s idea of what a real competition is. It’s the beauty of and to many, the frustrating part of the sport,” Johnson Clarke said. “With the mental, emotional, and physical health of these athletes at stake, my gut tells me to keep the safety valve in place.”

So much of the recent media attention that’s been showered on women’s college gymnastics has been about the spectacle of it—the joyous floor routines, the big personalities of the athletes, the fun of it all. And that’s all wonderful. I spent most my childhood and adolescence trying to get people to appreciate the sport and I’m thrilled that more people are getting on board without me having to badger them repeatedly.

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I do think that with the focus on spectacle of it all, however, what is lost is this sense that this is an athletic competition with high stakes for everyone involved. While it’s good that NCAA gymnastics is less intense than the once in an athlete’s lifetime sports-a-palooza better known as the Olympics, the dropping of scores at times gives the impression that competition is almost besides the point.

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About the author

Dvora Meyers

Dvora Meyers is a staff writer at Deadspin.