Tom Forster is out — Gymnastics news — Kyla Ross talks Arkansas

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, December 11, 2021

The big news this week is that Tom Forster will step down from his role as the U.S. High Performance Coordinator at the end of the year (USA Today). 

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It’s unclear what prompted this — it may have something to do with his recent podcast interview, or the U.S.’s team silver in Tokyo, or something else. Regardless of the reason, it’s good news. This program needs something new, and the gymnasts deserves better.

What does “better” look like? Many people have already commented on what USA Gymnastics should look for in a new national team coach, with a lot of overlapping opinions. That’s good — that means it’s clear what needs to be done: The high performance coordinator needs to be strategic and get rid of the ridiculous “All-around standings are king” mentality that led to a ridiculous Olympic team selection. They need to be transparent with athletes about team selection so athletes like Morgan Hurd don’t get left in the dark about why she was excluded from Trials, and not hide behind the (ironic) claim that what they’re doing is in the name of athlete centricity. They need to know that there are always going to be disagreements about team selection, but if you know what you’re doing and are consistent in your strategy and messaging, you can always back it up. And they have to be able to talk to the media without being sarcastic. I’d like to say that if anything good came out of Forster’s tenure, it’s that knowledge, but hell, we already knew all that.

At the same time, there’s so much we don’t know. We have competition results, team lists, on-camera interviews, and tweets from athletes, and this is valuable information that brings us to the conclusions listed above. But we do not have the full picture, as Simone Biles so pointedly reminded us yesterday. The rot runs deeper than the high performance coordinator, and the journey toward a healthy USAG that is also successful is going to be a long one. 

Gymnastics news

  • Roxana Popa is your new Spanish national champion. She won the all-around this week with a 54.132, along with the bars and beam titles. Gotta love seeing someone who’s been around forever still coming out on top. Full Spanish Championships results via The Gymternet. Here is Popa’s excellent bar routine, which scored at 14.132:
  • It was quite the week for gymnasts being named the year’s best. Biles was named TIME’s Athlete of the Year:

… while compatriot Suni Lee was named Sports Illustrated’s Athlete of the Year, and Rebeca Andrade was named Time Brasil’s Athlete of the Year. It’s always weird to me when athletes get awards (that’s what they do), but these I can get behind.

  • Chellsie Memmel isn’t done with gymnastics (h/t Inside Gymnastics).
  • Inside Gymnastics premiered a video feature on Michigan Gymnastics. While we’re in Michigan, Carly Bauman sadly tore her Achilles and is out for the year.
  • Lela Moore explores some of the gymnastics safety issues we discuss in the latest episodes of Blind Landing (Fansided).

Tweet of the week

I don’t really get it, but this one made me cackle:

Five at the IX: Kyla Ross

Photo: University of Arkansas

Olympic gold medalist, multiple world medalist, and NCAA champion Kyla Ross kindly spoke to me about her new role as a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Arkansas. Edited for clarity and length. 

How is training going?
The team’s doing really well. Now, we have really put full routines together and are trying to get in a few more intrasquads just to get mentally sharp right before the holidays, because once we get back from Christmas break, the season starts in a little less than two weeks, so that’s always a quick turnaround. I guess right now is more about the fine tuning and dialing into the mental side of what it is to compete with adrenaline, with a crowd, all that. That’s a big learning thing for the freshmen to get used to how it all works when we get to meet settings.

What is your role at Arkansas?
I’m mostly coaching beam, and then sometimes I’ll help out on bars. It’s cool to have an event. To really get to know the girls on that event and really help them achieve their goals on that event, it’s been really fun. Beam is one of my favorite events and I think it’s my favorite to coach. And now this year I’ll get to experience what it’s like to have an event out on the competition floor.

When you were still competing, you always looked so calm on beam. What unique experience do you bring to coaching beam?
I love competing, so I think that’s part of what helped me stay calm and relaxed, because it was something that I really enjoyed. I would put in as much work as I could in practice so I knew once I got to go out and salute for the judges, that this was more of a show and something that I got to enjoy, because I’d done the work already. 

From a coaching perspective, I hopefully bring a calm energy. Because once competition season starts there’s nothing really I can do from a coaching perspective aside from instilling confidence and providing small corrections here and there. But for beam it’s more up to the athlete to bring that mental toughness. So during this preseason I’ve been really trying to help and keep them mentally sharp and handle those pressure situations so that, similar to me, when they go out to compete they’re just really enjoying it and having fun, because they’ve earned the right to be confident on the beam.

What have you taken away from your own elite and NCAA coaches?
Luckily for me, my coaches in club and in college, they were really good with being able to openly communicate. That’s something where I’ve been lucky to have that experience all through my gymnastics career. So that’s something that I’ve really tried to advocate to the girls, that whenever there is something on their mind or something they need to tell me, whether it’s injury-wise or how they’re feeling that day, they can just openly communicate with me. 

How did you end up in this role?
Last year, I was able to student coach at UCLA, so I was finishing my undergrad degree while I was coaching. When that year finished, I wasn’t sure [what to do]. I really liked coaching, but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it another year and immerse myself even more and try to look for a volunteer spot, or to just try to go to grad school and pursue something in medicine.

And then I talked to Felicia Hano, who was my club and college teammate, and when we found out there was an opening in the volunteer spot, she was like, if you have any doubts, just talk to [head coach Jordyn Wieber]. So I called Jordyn and she was like, we’d love to have you if it’s something you’re interested in. It all happened very quickly. Within a matter of a month or two, I went. I’d never been to the state of Arkansas. So me and my boyfriend went and toured the facilities and the campus and the town, and I made the decision there to join the staff. And then a month later I got here.

It seems like a lot of former NCAA athletes are coaching. Why do you think that is?
This fall, we’ve been recruiting a lot, and even some of the athletes we’ve been recruiting in high school have already said, I think one of my goals is to be an NCAA gymnastics coach, which is so huge to hear and really refreshing.

I think it’s just the shift in culture. I think in the past, a lot of elites wouldn’t even go to college because they were so burnt out, and then, kind of around my years in college we started to see a shift there where a lot of elite athletes started to go to college a lot more. And now, I think there’s a shift to a lot of NCAA athletes becoming coaches in NCAA. I think it’s a testament to just seeing more positivity and just an overall better experience of these athletes, because of course everyone knows that gymnastics is such a difficult and tolling sport. But I think there has been a lot of improvement to make it beneficial, where people are leaving the sport and they still have a love for the sport and that’s what keeps them drawn in to want to pursue a career in that field.

What are you excited about going into the 2022 season?
I know there are probably going to be a few COVID restrictions. Last year at UCLA we had no fans, so I’m excited to be in arenas with fans of the sport, because I think NCAA gymnastics is such a growing sport, and so to have fans be able to be in the arena this year and experience the athletes and see them perform in person is going to be really exciting. I hope it’s another really great year of college gymnastics to help grow the sport.

Do you feel like you hitched yourself to a rocketship by joining Arkansas?
Hopefully! This will only be Jordyn’s third season, so just to see what she’s done here, I think that’s a really big reason I pursued this job. When I heard that there was an opening, I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, just to learn from Jordyn and Chris, and to be with Felicia, my club teammate who I’ve known for so long. I was like, I really feel like this is meant to be, I need to be at Arkansas. I’d like to hopefully be able to contribute to more buzz and to see Arkansas go in a positive direction, that would be something fun and something I definitely want to be a part of.

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