Let’s talk about talking smack in gymnastics — Other gym news — Thoughts from Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Apr. 8, 2023

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We’re one week out of regionals, one week away from nationals. 

There is always a weird dichotomy among gymnastics fans wherein we want our sport treated like a “real” sport, i.e., one with teams and balls, where occasional trash-talk is part of the rapport between both players and players and fans, but we also want our sport to uphold some rules of civility that exist in zero other sports. 

Some of this, I’m just gonna say, is sexism. Women’s sports, even those with teams and balls, are often held to a different standard than men’s sports when it comes to the way players — and players and their fans — interact. Just look at the brouhaha over the gestures flashed by Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and LSU’s Angel Reese during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. 

I’ve written a lot this season about the way gymnasts are treated by the media and by fans when they stop conforming to the mold of “little girl in pretty box.” I’ve hosted a few members of the community — Megan Walker Thigpen, a former Auburn gymnast, and Oregon State’s Madi Dagen, most recently — who have spoken eloquently about the pressures faced by gymnasts to be seen and not heard even when they are being mocked online. 

Regionals last week were chaotic in the best way, from the perspective of a sports journalist. We had rivalries, we had upsets, we had major upsets, we had a regional final decided by a tiebreaker. Five of the eight teams who made it to Fort Worth last year did not make it this year. 

And where there are rivalries and upsets and tiebreaks, there is trash talk by fans. 

Gymnastics cannot, and should not, be expected to be free of this. I do think, however, that there is an element of cruelty, often fueled by sexism, to the trash talk that exists in gymnastics. Not all of it — indeed a small minority of it — but as with most things, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and so that’s what we hear amplified the most within the community. 

But conversations about judging, scoring, coaching, the code — all of that is fair game and should be debated roundly, because that is what will make our sport better in the long run. We do not need to protect anyone’s feelings or wait until nationals are over to have those conversations. We know the scoring system needs work and judges should be taking more deductions. Let’s really talk about that.

But if you’re going to use a photo illustration of a team’s top NIL earner (but never mention her by name) as though her presence influences scoring that is not in your favor, or infer that a gymnast is making money on OnlyFans because her team beat your team, or knock a whole team’s looks and personalities over one gymnast’s perceived technical error, well, those conversations probably do not need to be broadcast online.

So have at it, but remember that there is good sportsmanship and bad sportsmanship. 

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Other gym news

Heading to nationals, in order of their regular-season rankings: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Florida, No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 Utah, No. 6 LSU, No. 7 Cal, No. 9 Kentucky and No. 13 Denver.

As I mentioned above, of the Elite Eight, only Oklahoma, Florida and Utah are returning from last year. Kentucky is headed to nationals for only the second time in program history. On the flip side, this will be Utah’s 47th consecutive appearance at NCAAs.

And of the country’s top 10 all-arounders, nearly half will not compete for the NCAA title. Some failed to qualify (Jade Carey being the big surprise here, only competing on beam at nationals), one (Florida’s Trinity Thomas) is injured and others will not compete all four events. We will see Jordan Chiles, Haleigh Bryant, Jordan Bowers, Selena Harris and Leanne Wong vie for the top individual prize.

Michigan, ranked No. 3 after the regular season, missed qualifying to nationals out of the Denver regional final on a tiebreaker to LSU, in what was likely the biggest shocker out of all the regional meets combined. 

Oklahoma won the regional it hosted while counting a fall, which caused a lot of bitterness among fans —particularly those from Alabama, who missed out on nationals but not because of Oklahoma’s fall. 

Auburn did not make it out of the UCLA regional semifinal, but that was honestly less of a surprise (after a muted regular season) than Washington being the team that booted them. 

Suni Lee announced that she has been dealing with a kidney condition that kept her from completing her final season at Auburn. 

Comparatively, the Pitt regional final, won by Cal in its first regional-final victory in program history, was pretty chill once we got over the absence of Thomas, who was injured in the semifinal. 

Florida, LSU, Cal and Denver compete in the first national semifinal on Thursday, April 13 at 2 p.m. CST. This one promises to be a bit more straightforward than the evening session, but all four of these teams are capable of surprises in both the positive and negative sense of the word.

Oklahoma, UCLA, Utah and Kentucky compete in the “Meet of Death” — I mean, the second national semifinal — on April 13 at 8 p.m. CST. Four teams will enter, only two can exit.

The national championship, to which the top two teams from each semi advance, will be on Sunday, April 15 at 3 p.m. CST.

Balance Beam Situation has all your info for nationals right here, including the individual qualifiers and with whom they will rotate.

BBS also has liveblogs for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4 and Day 5 of regionals.

And of course, there are GIFs

College Gym News has the leotards. They also have a great recap of all the action

Pitt was the first team to enter the traditional post-NCAAs game of coaching musical chairs. They announced this week that Samantha Snider, who has been the head gymnastics coach for six years, is no longer with the program

Aria Brusch and Cassie Stevens will take fifth years at Auburn.

Hollyn Patrick and Sienna Schrieber will be back at Missouri for their fifth years as well.

Switching gears to elite briefly, Konnor McClain this week acknowledged that she’s moved gyms from WOGA to Pacific Reign. Gymnerds noted that McClain’s bio on the USA Gymnastics website featured the gym change.

Social post of the week

MyKayla Skinner is pregnant. 

Five at The IX: Jaedyn Rucker

Team photo of Utah senior Jaedyn Rucker (Photo Credit / The University of Utah)

Jaedyn Rucker (she/her/hers), 21, is a senior at the University of Utah majoring in kinesiology. She recently announced at Utah’s Senior Night that she will be back next year, her fifth, with the Utes. Don’t go sending her celebratory Reese’s peanut butter cups, though, because she dislikes both chocolate and peanut butter. Originally from Mesa, Ariz., Rucker was the NCAA vault champion in 2022 and was an All American on the event; she was also the 2021 Pac-12 floor champion. At the UCLA regional final last week, Rucker scored to a perfect 10 on vault — the third of her career, and her second in three days, following another during the regional semifinal. Utah advanced to its 47th consecutive appearance at NCAA nationals. Follow Jaedyn on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube.  

What is motivating Utah right now, as you head into regionals week with nationals on the horizon?

JR: I think what is motivating us the most right now is continuing to take the steps necessary to get us to the Final Four. We work all year for this and now is the time to put everything together. Another thing that really motivates us is the fact that we have qualified to nationals 47 consecutive times. That is a legacy we do not want to break. 

What kind of motivator are you, personally, for your teammates — a vocal cheerleader or a silent encourager? (Or both?)

JR: I would say I am a little bit of both. I make sure that every teammate of mine knows and hears that they are very good at what they do and that they feel my trust and love for them. When they’re having a bad day, I remind them of how awesome they are and how much they mean to the team as both a gymnast and a person. I also like to just listen to what my teammates have to say and just be there for them instead of “fixing” their problem. I believe that if you listen and let a person just talk to you, that they will solve their own problem by themselves. I just like to be someone that they can trust and feel safe around and also just be a reminder to them of how amazing they are. 

What made you choose Utah, and what makes you proud to be a Ute now, as you close out your career?

JR: I chose Utah because I loved the program and the coaching staff. It was also very close to home for me and I wanted to be able to get back home quickly if necessary. I will forever be proud to be a Ute because this University took me in and supported me throughout my whole career. It allowed me to change and grow into the person I am today and I am forever grateful for the people that got me here. 

What, if any, superstitions or rituals do you have before a meet?

JR: I don’t have many. I just have to play a game of Fortnite before every competition. 

What is your favorite skill, and favorite apparatus to perform in? 

JR: My favorite skill is probably my half-in, half-out on floor, and my favorite apparatus to perform on will forever be floor. 

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
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Thursdays: Golf
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Fridays: Hockey
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Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Lela Moore