Dana Duckworth is out at Alabama – Fisk signs its first class – Other gymnastics news – Thoughts from Leeiah Davis, Fisk signee
The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, May 21, 2022
The big news, once again, in gymnastics this week is about a college coach. This time, it’s Dana Duckworth of Alabama, who stepped down seemingly abruptly on Thursday after eight seasons as the team’s head coach and another 15 as assistant coach and as a volunteer assistant coach. Duckworth also competed for the Crimson Tide as a gymnast from 1990-1993. Gina Quinlan will serve as interim head coach.
The phrasing of Duckworth’s departure announcement, along with the secrecy with which it was shrouded, immediately raised lots of questions about the circumstances of her exit from the program.
“The University of Alabama is a special place and I care deeply about the gymnastics program, but after 27 years of involvement, I have decided to step down and focus on my family for now,” Duckworth’s statement, published on Alabama’s website Thursday, read.
I’m not going to spend time here on the various rumors about Duckworth going around the gymternet; you can hop on the socials and read those for yourself.
I am going to talk about what I know, and what is on the record about Duckworth, which is that she and her program were tarnished by racism.
On June 2, 2020, shortly after George Floyd’s murder and amidst a racial reckoning in the United States that swept through boardrooms and locker rooms alike, former Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku tweeted, in part, “@BamaGymnastics, Do we really stand together?” On Instagram that same day, Kiaku described being asked “What is this, the back of the bus?” by then-Alabama assistant coach Bill Lorenz, who observed that Kiaku and the team’s other two Black gymnasts were all training the same event at the same time. There was more to Kiaku’s story, a lot more, all of which she told ESPN in the story I linked above. Slurs from teammates, being singled out for Black History Month photo ops, and Duckworth calling Kiaku’s mother, Desiree Gregory, to ask if Tia’s father was still in the picture and to express concerns about Kiaku’s supposed promiscuity.
A Title IX investigation took place. Lorenz was told a note about the “back of the bus” remark would go on his permanent record, but kept his job. He’s still there. No other coach or gymnast was disciplined publicly. Duckworth made a statement about taking responsibility, having regrets, but coming together as a family.
Kiaku left the team and left Alabama. Her gymnastics career ended; she entered the transfer portal but no one recruited her. She is now a student at North Carolina Central University, an HBCU, where she is thriving academically, but, she told me when I interviewed her in January, missed gymnastics dearly.
I spoke to Kiaku for an article I wrote, published on January 26, about the climate at UCLA just before the NCAA season began this year. Kiaku had a lot to say, but the most notable was that she was trying to start a gymnastics team at an HBCU. She had teamed up with Derrin Moore, whose Brown Girls Do Gymnastics Instagram account became an advocacy organization for Black gymnasts, to make it happen.
And yet, Kiaku said to me, it’s all “bittersweet” because, although she may be launching other Black girls into incredible college careers, she herself never competed as a gymnast again after leaving Alabama. White women (and men, too) got away with racism.
Dana Duckworth was one of them. We may never know if any of the circumstances surrounding Kiaku and the Title IX investigation ultimately contributed to Duckworth’s exit. Maybe they did, maybe it was something else, maybe it’s nothing else.
Racism is not the type of lemon from which you make lemonade, and I don’t want to insinuate that out of her encounter with Duckworth, Kiaku found a positive, because she did not. Kiaku and Moore planted a whole new lemon tree at Fisk, from which new fruit will grow.
Duckworth’s legacy? Well, it’s pretty sour.
Fisk’s first signing class
Other gymnastics news
Abby Brenner will transfer from Michigan to Utah for a fifth year.
Shawn Johnson went on The Players’ Pod to talk with host Kelley O’Hara about life after Olympic gold and her YouTube empire.
Rebeca Andrade competed at the Brazilian national championships, casually leading bars after qualifications. She didn’t compete on the vault, on which she won Olympic gold. Let’s hope she’s preserving her glass knees for Paris 2024.
I mean, could there be better form?
Aleah Finnegan competed at the SEA Games as a member of Team Philippines, leading them to team gold and winning silver in the all-around. She also won gold on vault, which is how we discovered that LSU was hiding her vault(s) – a Yurchenko 1.5 and an Omelianchik, both with a 10.0 start value in NCAA – from us all year.
You can also watch her bars, beam, and floor. We have some questions about the missing leap series on floor, but we think we might be saying Bonjour, Aleah, come 2024.
Five at The IX: Leeiah Davis
Leeiah Davis is part of Fisk University’s first signing class, as I mentioned above. Davis trains level 10 at Georgia Elite Gymnastics in Watkinsville, Ga., and is coached by Pete Arenas. I found Leeiah on Instagram and asked her to answer a few questions as she prepares to make history with the Fisk Gymdogs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose Fisk University to continue your gymnastics career?
LD: I chose Fisk University to continue my gymnastics career because of their academic excellence, and also because I am really into Black history. And where else to learn about it and be exposed to it than an HBCU, where I can also do what I have been doing since age 5 and what I love: Gymnastics.
What are you most looking forward to as an NCAA athlete?
Making history with my sisters and doing what we love and [have] been called to do by God at a Historically Black College/University (HBCU).
How does it feel knowing you are part of the first gymnastics team at an HBCU?
Knowing that I will be a part of the first HBCU gymnastics team makes me feel like I’m going to leave a mark in this world, doing something amazing for a young Black child, giving them hope and something to look forward to if it’s their path.
What is your favorite skill, and favorite apparatus?
My favorite apparatus would have to be bars and if I had to choose a favorite skill it would be dismounting.
If you could design a leo, what would it look like?
It would have to be red, because red is my favorite color. It would have a picture of a gymnast with shades of browns indicating the different shades of melanin with lots of Swarovski crystals, silver and smoke gray, just blinged out.
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