So, about that Tennessee Collegiate Classic judging — Thoughts from Alaska’s Montana Fairbairn

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, Jan. 27, 2024

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So the big news out of last week’s NCAA meet was that Ball State received the first 198 of the 2024 season. Yup, you heard right: Ball State. 

Now Ball State is, theoretically, capable of hitting that mark on its best day ever. They finished last season in 32nd place, earning a berth at the Norman regional where they lost to North Carolina State in the first round.

But, to quote my favorite childhood movie, Watcher in the Woods, “it hardly ever happens.” So when it does, we pay attention. And that’s when we noticed something was rotten in Tennessee. 

Indeed, Emily Minehart at College Gym News (CGN) called the judging at the Tennessee Collegiate Challenge, held on Jan. 19 in Lebanon, Tenn., “disgraceful.” CGN’s judging columnist Rhiannon Franck called it “unethical” in a piece where she provided a rescoring of the meet.

[Obligatory editorial note here to say that I, like these other journalists, am not passing judgment on any individual gymnasts or teams here. I’m strictly passing judgment on the judges.]

It wasn’t just Ball State that received a sky-high score (which broke their previous record by more than a point; the squad had never previously hit the 197 mark); all seven teams that competed set program records. Five routines received perfect 10s. And the meet was not streamed online, so no one could see what was happening in real time. Which was, apparently, a free-for-all.

Here’s why this is not great for our sport: Scores exist to differentiate routines, and that includes differentiating the good from the great as well as the great from the perfect. Yes, gymnastics judging is subjective, but there are rules and a code to follow as a guide. So when you have a meet where those rules and that code seemingly get tossed out the window, so too does any incentive to aim for perfection, or close to it. This is a sport that relies on details to elevate scores. When those details are not judged, what’s the point? If anyone can get a 10, why try? Why are we watching?

Gymnastics fans everywhere love to pick apart scores and ask what judges were thinking. Remember Carol (see question two)? I do. Turns out Carol was a bit of a canary in a coal mine. The Tennessee Collegiate Classic, I hope, is the mine collapse that brings institutional change at last. 

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Other gym news

Balance Beam Situation has the records from last week (see above), the schedule for this week, and, of course, the GIFs.

Besides their coverage of the aforementioned Tennessee Collegiate Classic, College Gym News brings us some more lingering Week 3 questions, leotard rankings, and my book review of Maggie Nichols’  Unstoppable, which I also talked about here last week.

Amelie Morgan will miss a month of Utah meets while she trains in her native England; she hopes to become a part of Team GB at the Paris Olympics. She will return for Pac-12 Championships, regionals, and nationals.

Sunisa Lee talks about Billie Jean King and Title IX here:

Oh yeah, and Lee did a full-twisting laid-out Jaeger, NBD.

Five at The IX: Montana Fairbairn of the University of Alaska

Montana Fairbairn competes on beam for Alaska. Photo credit: Montana Fairbairn
Montana Fairbairn competes on beam for the University of Alaska last week. Photo credit: Montana Fairbairn

Montana Fairbairn is a junior at Alaska, majoring in kinesiology (in which she has a 4.0 and made Academic All-American in the MPSF conference last year, NBD). She is a standout for the Seawolves on vault and beam. She graciously answered all my questions this week and did it with an entire day to spare despite our big time difference. Thank you, Montana!

Alaska Gymnastics is a special program — you all saved [yourselves] from budget cuts a few years ago. How does it feel to be a part of this team, and what made you choose to go to school and do gymnastics there? 

Montana Fairbairn (MF): I knew from the moment I stepped on campus and met the team that I wanted to go to school in Alaska. The team, coaches, and faculty were all so welcoming and made UAA feel like home. After being told our program was getting cut after arriving in Alaska fall of 2020, I felt worried and unsure of what the future was going to hold. However, [head coach] Marie-Sophie Boggasch and [assistant coach] Kendra McPheters made it clear that we weren’t going anywhere from the first meeting with the board of regents. Now being in my 4th year on this team, with full support from the university, I feel beyond grateful to have stuck around and been part of saving this program for future gymnasts!

What is your favourite thing about living in Alaska for school, and your least favourite? 

MF: I love almost everything about living in Alaska. It’s an opportunity that lots of people dream to experience. From the beautiful mountains to the incredible wildlife and stunning northern lights, I couldn’t have asked for a better state to attend school. As for my least favorite part, I would have to say it’s the dark winters as I love the sun and daylight. 

Alaska’s Northern Lights Leo is my favourite college leo ever. If you could design an Alaska leo, what would yours look like? 

MF: I also love our new Northern Lights Leo! I am not the most creative person when it comes to designing things but I know if I were to design a Leo for our team, it would be very sparkly and of course, embracing Alaska and UAA spirit. 

What is your favourite gymnastics skill to do, and what’s your favourite of the four apparatuses? 

MF: My favorite skill to do is probably a side aerial on the beam. I have done it for so long and it has been my favorite skill ever since I learned it many years ago. Fun fact, as for my favorite event, I don’t have one. I love them all pretty equally and just love the sport of gymnastics overall. Being able to come into the gym and do cool flips makes every day the best day ever!

What does your pre-meet ritual look like? Any superstitions?

MF: I love getting ready and hyped with my teammates. Blasting music in the locker room while we put glitter in our hair is one of my favorite pre-meet rituals to do. I don’t have any specific superstitions, but I have been convinced that doing my hair the same way every meet has created some good luck that I will keep for the rest of my college career!

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Written by Lela Moore