My very first NCAA meet: A glowing review — Other gym news — Thoughts from Umme Salim-Beasley, Rutgers head coach

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Feb. 11, 2023

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I attended my first NCAA meet last Friday.

Yes, I make part of my living as a gymnastics writer and have for the last few years, and I’d never attended a college gymnastics meet. The only gymnastics I’ve ever seen live, in fact, have been a few elite tour shows – the ones after the 1996 and 2016 Olympics, to be exact. Both of these I watched from nosebleed seats.

I live in the northeastern United States, which is a difficult place to be a college gym fan because there simply are fewer teams up here. For most of my adult life, I didn’t have a car and so was reliant on planes, trains, and public transportation when I traveled – not always the best way to access a sport like gymnastics.

When LIU’s gymnastics team started up in 2021, not far from where I used to live in Brooklyn, I got excited, but it was still mid-pandemic and I was still avoiding crowds, and I never got out to Old Westbury.

But I moved to New Jersey recently, and I decided to get to know the Rutgers team because their home meets are held just a half hour away from my house.

And so Friday night, I packed up my family and off we went down the Garden State Parkway to Piscataway, N.J., home of Jersey Mike’s Arena and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights gymnastics team. It was a quad meet: Rutgers versus Michigan, Fisk, and Southern Connecticut. Rutgers home meets are free, which surprised and delighted me, and parking was free as well once I registered for a gymnastics season parking pass online. I’d certainly pay for this experience, but this was a nice way to kick off my NCAA spectating career.

The first thing I noticed once we entered the arena was that every team, not just Rutgers, had a big fan contingent in the stands. I chatted with some Fisk fans and family members in line for concessions, and we had a row of Michigan stans waving gold pompoms seated directly in front of us. I heard plenty of applause for Southern Connecticut as well. The arena is old, but it kept us close to the action and it felt almost homey – I attended many events in a similarly 70s-era arena as a kid, so I was like, I got you, Jersey Mike’s.

We were seated behind the vault runway, with the floor mat just beyond that, bars to the left and the balance beam to the right. Great views of all four apparatuses, all of which looked a little smaller in person.  I find that to be the case with any sport you watch mostly on television – the athletes look bigger IRL, and the equipment and/or the field – in this case, the floor mat –  looks tiny.

My partner loved the camaraderie amongst the individual teams but noted that the four teams seemed very isolated from one another during the meet – a common complaint, I know, by observers of NCAA regional and national meets, where gymnasts are effectively in cages on the fringes of the podium.

I think as a veteran of several sports, including running, swimming, and some very low-level gymnastics, that are all individual sports occasionally competed with a team, I barely noticed that, but his sports experience is mostly on teams so it stood out to him.

My 5-year-old son, Ned, with the Scarlet Knight./Steven Aglione
My 5-year-old son, Ned, with the Scarlet Knight./Steven Aglione

My five-year-old reports that “seeing all the flips” and meeting the Scarlet Knight mascot were key to his experience. He loves watching bars rotations on TV with me and was fascinated by the event in person since he could now hear the bars as well as see them.

I came away feeling really grateful that I could experience Division I college gymnastics in such an intimate way, so close to home. Rutgers was a great host and I enjoyed getting to see their athletes in action, as well as getting to see them compete against both 2021 national champions Michigan, and Fisk as the first HBCU gymnastics team. Three of the four coaches (Rutgers’ Umme Salim-Beasley, Fisk’s Corrine Tarver, and Southern Connecticut’s Byron Knox) were Black, half of NCAA’s Black coaches represented right in front of us on the first weekend of Black History Month, at a meet celebrating Black Excellence and honoring Rutgers’ athletic accomplishments since the passage of Title IX. Salim-Beasley and Michigan’s head coach, Bev Plocki, are both graduates of West Virginia University, and their former coach, Linda Burdette, was in the audience. The crowd of 4,755 set an attendance record the night we attended, which was a cool thing to be part of. 

Two of the weekend’s 11 perfect 10s were performed right in front of us. Michigan’s Sierra Brooks and Abby Heiskell had beautiful Yurchenko 1.5s on vault, one right after the other, in the final rotation. That sent Michigan to a season-high finish at 198.300. Southern Connecticut hit a season-high 190.700. Fisk’s floor routines – one that included the theme song to “Unsolved Mysteries,” OMG! Be still my true-crime-loving heart! – were a joy to watch, and their standout Morgan Price shone on vault and bars. Rutgers junior Avery Balser scored her first 9.9 on bars, tying her for the 10th-best all-time performance on the event at Rutgers, and her teammates surrounded her with joy. Rutgers also went 49.200 on floor, a season-high and the 10th-highest floor score in program history, boosted by Hannah Joyner’s 9.9. 

I cannot wait to go back.

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Other gym news

Naturally, the best way to catch up on the week in NCAA is with Spencer’s GIFs at The Balance Beam Situation. 

If you need, like, numbers and rankings, then head over to Road to Nationals

As I mentioned above, 11 routines got perfect 10s last week – and 24 others got a 10 from at least one judge. You can see all 35 by clicking on that link. Four 10s went to just two gymnasts: Auburn’s Suni Lee and Florida’s Leanne Wong each got 10s on both bars and beam. I saw those vault 10s by Michigan’s Heiskell and Brooks IRL, and they were awesome. The others went to Alabama’s Luisa Blanco (beam), Utah’s Maile O’Keefe (beam), LSU’s Aleah Finnegan (floor), Minnesota’s Mya Hooten (floor), and Denver’s Jessica Hutchinson, performing her mom’s 1992 Olympic floor routine

The top four teams in the NCAA pulled away from the rest pretty decisively this week. Oklahoma, Michigan, Florida, and Utah are the teams making a run for the title, it would seem. They are the only four teams who have cracked 198 so far this season. Nipping at their heels we have Auburn, UCLA, California, Denver, LSU, and … Kentucky! Not as many stunning upsets this week as last. 

Here’s this weekend’s NCAA schedule, though I recognize it’s a day late and a dollar short if you’re into the SEC. The Metroplex meet is probably the big event for today, though. 

Trinity Thomas sees her Honda Award on the wall at Florida’s gym for the first time. If you don’t cry, you’re a monster. 

Suni Lee talks about enjoying NCAA to the fullest this season, likely the last of her college career. 

The Daily Iowan has a great interview with Iowa senior JerQuavia Henderson, who says she struggled to find her identity outside of the sport before doing NCAA. 

Katie McNamara of UCLA is on the injury list with a torn ACL. Wishing her a speedy recovery! 

UCLA trained beam to the most obnoxious songs possible to prepare them for the crowds in Utah. I love this. 

Morgan Hurd talked to the Olympic Channel about her career-threatening ACL injury and how it helped her gain perspective. 

Amari Celestine is a star at Missouri. We know that, of course, but it’s cool to hear her talk about it. 

USA Gymnastics will once again stream elite meets and post individual routines! 

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Ashton Locklear made a TikTok about her awful experience at 2014 Worlds. 

LSU’s Aleah Finnegan plans to try for the Olympics, representing the Philippines. 

Dipa Karmakar of India will serve out a doping ban

The nominative roster for the Baku World Cup, which will be held next weekend, February 18-19, is out.  

Five at the IX: Umme Salim-Beasley

Umme Salim-Beasley/

Umme Salim-Beasley (she/her/hers) is the head coach of Rutgers’ women’s gymnastics team. I intended to meet Umme in person when I attended the Rutgers quad meet last weekend but had to get my kid home to bed and missed seeing her. She kindly jumped on Zoom with me this week to answer my questions and we had a great conversation. It’s a long interview but, I think, an important one right now.

Salim-Beasley trained at Hill’s Gymnastics in Maryland growing up, where she met Dominique Dawes, who remains, she said, one of her closest friends. She competed on West Virginia University’s gymnastics team. Her first job out of college was as an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania. She was an elementary school teacher before serving as WVU’s volunteer assistant coach. She coached a high school team in Maryland before heading to Rutgers for the first time in 2012 as an assistant coach. In 2015 she became the head coach at Temple, where she worked for three years before becoming Rutgers’ head coach in 2018. She is one of three Black female head coaches in NCAA gymnastics and one of just five Black head coaches overall. 

In her first year with the Scarlet Knights, Salim-Beasley’s team was named the most improved in the NCAA. They have set numerous school and program records during her tenure as head coach, and have excelled in the classroom as well. Salim-Beasley is married and has three daughters. 

This interview is edited for clarity.

Your grandfather was a prominent civil rights movement figure. You are one of five Black coaches in the NCAA – a trailblazer! What lessons have you taken from your family history that influence your own career? 

US-B: Knowing, of course, everything that my grandfather did,, really pushing and fighting for equality, for civil rights for change. Definitely from a young age I learned not to settle for something that isn’t fair or isn’t right. 

I think he was a little more forceful with what he did than what I do, my approach is a little bit different. But it was also a different time period in the 1950s and the 1960s. My grandfather was fearless and, um, that was another lesson that he pushed down to his children as well as his grandchildren, is that you cannot be afraid.

You have to be willing to speak up. If you see something and you know it’s not right, then you need to be the one. You can’t wait for someone else to do it for you. You need to be the one to create the change and, and talk about why it’s not right and why we need to have something be different. Now what he had to face with his home being bombed, with having death threats, that he lived through all of that and continued to thrive and continued to wanna fight for change, even under those circumstances, knowing that these were the possibilities and these could be outcomes – that was extremely admirable. To be able to face all those things and then continue to want to do what was right was something that, I, for myself, wanted to be able to do.

Of course, I’m not as vocal as he was when it comes to politics. But I think that there’s always opportunities for change. And it doesn’t have to be within politics, it can be within the sport of gymnastics. It can be, within the educational system.

There’s always battles that we’re having to fight to be able to create positive change. 

I think that that’s something that is a strength within my team because that is how we work with our athletes. We want them to be able to form opinions, to think for themselves and, and not disbelieve what someone else is telling you. So I would say that those are things that I really try to do with my own athletes. 

And then of course within the gymnastics community, [I] speak up for things that are very close to my heart, which of course [include] diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’ve had quite a bit of experience with different committees within the NCAA, the Big 10, as well as our collegiate gymnastics association to really educate people on items that we are facing. That’s really been my focus as of recently, is to really bring up issues that we’re facing that in the past had been something that you just didn’t really talk about. Now we’re gonna bring them into the forefront.

We’re gonna have discussions, we’re gonna talk about people’s feelings and how it affects them, and maybe have a different mindset or approach to what it is that we do moving forward. 

Black History Month has begun, and yet again, we’re in the midst of a fraught moment with the death of a Black man at the hands of the police in Memphis. You have a reputation for being outspoken with your teams about your own history and about BLM. Gymnastics has a reputation for being a not-very-diverse, somewhat sheltered sport. What change do you hope to effect by being open and honest about what is happening outside the gym with your gymnasts? 

US-B: Well, I would say that we have a very diverse team. All ethnicities that have come from completely different backgrounds. And I think right from the beginning, the important thing is for us to learn about each other. So when we come in in the fall, our team takes a lot of time to really focus on team building and team bonding.

We go away for a team retreat and the gymnasts have opportunities to really talk about their life and, you know, this is my background. These are some of the things that I do with my family, just so that we have an understanding of each other and, and their backgrounds and where they’re coming from and it helps us to get insight into their way of thinking as well. We always have gymnasts that’ll say, wow, I never, I never even thought about that until my teammate brought this up. 

I think we create a very safe space for our athletes. After every single practice, we get together and we talk. Not only do we talk about the day and how practice went and our goals moving forward, [but]  is there anything that popped up on campus or anything that you might have seen in the news that’s resonating with you. Let’s sit down and, and talk about that.

Our team really is very trusting of each other. [They] say, you know what? I saw this on the news last night and it really shook me, and these are the reasons why. And someone else on the team, one of the teammates may be like, well, I didn’t even hear about that. Or, I wouldn’t have even thought that way. But now that you’re bringing it up, I can see where you’re coming from. So what can we do? Is there anything that we can do as a team to be able to oh, bring attention to this? Is there something positive that we can do?

And a lot of times those are conversations that we end up taking to our administration and [we] say, ‘Hey, these are some of the topics that our student-athletes are bringing up. This is something that came up on our team. Is there any education that we can bring to this topic, to our team or our student-athletes where we can help them to be able to, understand what is going on, as well as find ways that might be productive and constructive for us to be able to address some of these things?’

You know, bring it to people’s attention outside of our student-athlete committee community, as well as our university community. Like, how can we resonate nationally for this to be something that people can draw more attention to? 

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Gymnastics has historically not been a very diverse sport and NCAA gym in particular has had several concerning situations with racism on teams that have come to light. in the last few years. Have you seen any changes that make you optimistic about the future with regard to diversity in the sport, or do you think progress is too slow? And how does this play into your recruiting?

US-B: Our gymnasts are our best ambassadors. They’re the ones that are saying, you know, this is the program that I’m a part of and this is why I really love being a part of it. And, it makes other people interested too, which we absolutely love. And it’s not that we’re out pushing an agenda.

When I was doing gymnastics in the late 80s and into the mid-90s, and then college all the way up to the late 90s, gymnastics was not a diverse sport.  And I didn’t really know that until I went to college. Because I grew up in the DC area. It was a very diverse community. I had teammates that looked like me, lots of teammates that looked like me. 

So for me, I was functioning in that little gymnastics bubble. Once I started going on recruiting visits and seeing other universities and not seeing any diversity on their teams, that was very eye-opening for me I chose a college team because I wanted to have teammates that looked like me on my team. And West Virginia was a program that had historically had African-American gymnasts on their team. And so I felt a level of comfort in that. Because I knew that the coaches were open to having African American gymnasts on their team. 

I went to some schools and [was told] that, you know, if you’re looking for diversity on a team, then you need to look somewhere else. It was really blatant. It was shocking that I would go to a school and someone would say that, and then there were places that absolutely did not recruit black gymnasts at all. And surprisingly, there are still schools that if you look around –  they don’t have black gymnasts or any diversity on their teams. I would say that that is intentional.

There are so many African-American gymnasts, There’s such diversity in our gymnastics community now that  I can’t imagine that there would be a team that wouldn’t have African-American gymnasts on their team or a diverse team population. I can say it probably is difficult if you don’t have any currently on your team to draw diversity to your program if that’s not what you’ve had in the past.

So for some coaches, maybe they might just have to work a little bit harder if that is what they’re trying to create, but some are just fine…not having to put the effort in. And it was also very eye-opening when I was the co-chair of our diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, when we sent out some anonymous surveys, to hear that there were some coaches in our association that just didn’t think it was important at all. Wow. We can’t ignore the fact that yes, there are still coaches that are out there that really just don’t think it’s important. 

Now I can say that that was not my experience at all. I had an incredible experience at West Virginia with my head coach, Linda Burdette. She was on top of it. [If] something was said or if she felt we were treated unfairly because of our race, she was going to come in like a bull in a China shop and make it right.

But most recently to be hearing stories about what collegiate gymnasts have had to face…I don’t know how they remained on those teams. And they almost didn’t want to do gymnastics anymore. They just wanted to quit completely because of the things that they were being told and the way that they were being treated.

People want to typecast Black females because they’re speaking up. They’re talking about how they’re feeling, and they’re the angry Black woman stereotype. They’re made to feel bad about speaking up about what’s affecting them or how they’re being treated, and they’re just being told, well, you’re just gonna have to deal with that instead of addressing where the problem is coming from and trying to get those people to stop doing what they’re doing.

Big 10 gymnastics, including Rutgers, seems to be growing in both popularity and with regard to programs achieving top scores and setting records. To what do you attribute this growth over the last couple of years, and what do you think is in the conference’s future?

US-B: College gymnastics over the past five to 10 years has really just grown to be such an exciting sport. And it’s drawing a lot of attention. [At Rutgers], we want it to be a fun environment. We want our fans to come back. We don’t wanna charge them fees. We want them to, you know, come out, bring their kids, get their face painted, get a little giveaway. And, and just enjoy being a part of the collegiate gymnastics experience.

The Big 10 conference is the largest gymnastics conference in the country. We’re gonna get larger with UCLA. We’re definitely gonna be a powerhouse, I would say that. Now with Michigan winning a national championship a few years ago, showing that the Big 10 Conference is a conference that can produce a national champion.  Of course, UCLA, with Olympians on their team, is gonna bring a whole lot more attention to the conference.

So I think that it’s wonderful. It’s really creating more opportunities for our athletes and it’s also drawing more recruits’ interest into the Big 10. I think recruits now are starting to be more savvy with their choices because not only do they want an amazing athletic experience, but they want an amazing degree also. Athletes are looking at a Big 10 conference as the whole package that you’re getting. Amazing athletics, and then you’re getting a degree that really is gonna help you for your future.

How do you relax after a meet? (I’m always curious about how coaches are able to wind down after such an intense experience!)

US-B: You have to have some separation. I have my meet time, and then I have my mom time, and then I have my personal time too. 

After meets, and we talk about this to our team all the time, that, you know, we have to leave what happened on the mat. Now we have to come down and focus on what comes next. 

A lot of times after meets, I feel like I got run over by a truck and I say it to the girls all the time, I’m like, I feel like I competed every single routine in that meet. And, you know, we [coaches] get nervous too. Because you’re exerting a lot of energy also. You want to motivate your athletes, you wanna console them. 

But after the meet, I always, I’m like, okay, so I’m gonna go to dinner. And it’s sometimes with my daughters if they come up. Sometimes it’s my parents, sometimes it’s my assistants. We’re gonna go to dinner, we’re gonna start the unwind process. Sometimes if it’s later at night, I’ll get home, I’ll have a glass of wine, I will read my book.

We’re big on recovery with our athletes as well as ourselves too. Reminding them that they need to hydrate and they need to make sure that they’re keeping up with proper nutrition so that their bodies can be fueled and be able to handle the amount of practice plus competition. But all those things apply to us too. Work time is work time, meet time is meet time. Now I need to shift and dedicate my time to my daughters.

And then I’ll definitely leave time for like, self-care and making sure that I’m having time to just unwind and de-stress myself. And, and sometimes that’s just a phone call every day to my sister.  Having that time to talk to my sister or my friends – that’s time that just re-energizes you.

Written by Lela Moore