Transfer portal, agent of offseason chaos — Other gym news — Thoughts from Aleah Finnegan

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, April 29, 2023

Happy gymnastics Saturday! The most predictable thing about the few weeks immediately following NCAA gymnastics championships is the unpredictability, as athletes enter the transfer portal and the coaching merry-go-round gets going.  

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Unlike in many sports, primarily football and basketball, where the transfer portal is considered a matter of course, the transfer portal in gymnastics creates a ton of drama among fans. It’s as though the portal itself is an actual portal, like the entrance to Narnia in the back of a wardrobe, or Platform 9 ¾, clandestine and mysterious. 

In reality, the transfer portal is an online database. No lions, witches or wizards involved. Each of the three NCAA seasons has a window; for winter sports like gymnastics, that is a 60-day window beginning the day after championship selections are made. Exceptions are made for graduate transfers, students whose scholarships are reduced, canceled, or not renewed by their schools, and students whose teams are undergoing a head coach change. Students in those categories may enter the portal at any time. 

After informing their current program of their desire to transfer, gymnasts must be placed in the portal by the school within two days. Once in the portal, gymnasts signal their willingness to be contacted by coaches of other programs. 

That’s it. It seems so simple, but factor in social media and the drama it creates and you have a recipe for chaos. As my friend Dvora Meyers over at Unorthodox Gymnastics notes, there is a whole population of gym nerds online who are experts at catching subtle changes in gymnasts’ social bios and in their followers and those they follow. (Dvora also wrote about the proportion problem with social media, which amplifies its effects even among relatively small groups like the gymternet). 

What should be a relatively straightforward process (and often is, in other sports) — gymnast wants to transfer, gymnast enters her name in a computer database, gymnast transfers, Rudi the Roster Robot tweets out the change and the College Gym News spreadsheets are updated — thus becomes a circus. 

What I see most often as I lurk about on social media is the presumption that a program that sees a gymnast transfer must be abusive or that a gymnast has suffered bullying or other trauma. This is not completely surprising given that gymnastics at all levels has been riddled with reports of abuse and abusive coaching for nearly a decade, and college gymnastics programs have been the targets of many #gymnastalliance posts alleging racism, microaggressions and bullying by coaches and teammates alike. It is often the default response of the gymnastics fan to assume that all gymnasts at a high level have endured some kind of abuse or trauma directly related to the sport, or that every coach is bad and every program is hiding dark secrets. 

In sports like basketball, players transfer regularly. People who became stars on small teams want to move to big teams even if it means playing less. People who can’t quite break out on big teams move to other teams seeking more playing time. Sometimes a coach who recruited an athlete moves to a new school and the athlete goes with them. All of this happens with far fewer dramatic overtones than in gymnastics (although it’s important to note that there is more drama in women’s basketball, say, than in men’s or in football, which makes me think a lot of this is based on the assumption that women are inherently dramatic and can’t get along on teams, which I would like all of you reading to go forth and refute). 

But guess what? All of those thing I just said about basketball and football are true in gymnastics. Gymnasts doing one event on a bigger team might want to be all-arounders at a smaller program, and gymnasts who break out on one event on a small team might want the opportunity to do that one event in front of a sold-out arena for a bigger team. Gymnasts might want to live in a new part of the country or check out a new coach for a Covid year after being with the same program for four years. 

That is not to say two things cannot be true at the same time. Gymnasts may want to compete more AND a program might not be a great fit for them (or be a truly terrible fit for them). Gymnasts on a smaller-profile team might want to be part of a big team that always goes to nationals AND maybe they didn’t click with their previous teammates. 

And let’s remember that it is a big deal that we get as much transparency from athletes about the transfer portal as we do. It was not that long ago that transferring was treated as a shameful process and coaches and conferences could block athletes from doing so. 

So while it’s fun to guess what teams might benefit from which transfers, and who is best suited for which team for a Covid season, it’s all a he-said, she-said game until the database (and Rudi) updates. 

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Other gym news

Speaking of the transfer portal… (official notices only! No rumors here.) 

College Gym News is keeping track of portal announcements here

Utah’s Jillian Hoffman is in it. This will be Hoffman’s fifth (Covid) year. 

So is her Utah teammate Lucy Stanhope. Stanhope is entering her senior year.

Savannah Schoenherr of Florida is in it, looking for a place for her Covid year as well. 

LIU’s Ilka Juk, a rising junior, is in it. 

Seeking a new locale for her Covid year, Arizona’s Sirena Linton is in it. 

Iowa State’s Alondra Maldonado is in it, also looking for a new program for her Covid year. 

Two gymnasts from North Carolina State, Hailey Merchant and Lauren Rutherford (both rising juniors), entered the portal. Merchant is still in it. 

Rutherford just committed to Clemson, which begins its program next season. 

Pitt’s Sidney Washington, a rising junior, is in it. 

And Heidi Hartje of West Virginia, a rising junior, is in it to win it as well, per her Instagram bio.

Another frequent source of gymternet drama is the coaching merry-go-round that takes place in the weeks after nationals, as teams seek to hire rising stars and position their programs for bigger and better things. Last week we saw Pitt snag Casey Jo MacPherson from Missouri. 

This week, Iowa State announced that it hired Ashley Miles Greig, a former star at Alabama,  as its head coach. We’ll miss Greig on the mic for televised meets — her commentary kept it very, very real — but so happy for her (and Iowa State, which has had a rough go of it) with this move. 

Trinity Thomas won the Honda Award for the second straight year, and no one is mad about it at all. 

Lynnzee Brown, who just completed her sixth and final year at Denver, now has a FIG license. She hinted in an interview earlier this year that she might pursue elite, competing for Haiti, and it appears that she is now one step closer to doing just that. 

Kayla DiCello announced that she will take a gap year from Florida to pursue her own Olympic run. I am shook — she seemed to be done with elite last year — but very excited for her! 

Alabama’s Makarri Doggette and Luisa Blanco announced they will return for their fifth seasons. 

Sydney Barros won the Puerto Rican championships and hinted that she will defer UCLA for a year to make an Olympic run. 

Olivia Dunne appears in the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. We stan our NIL queen. 

Joscelyn Roberson is competing at the Cairo World Cup right now. She qualified to finals in second place on vault.

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Shilese Jones showed off a full-twisting double tuck BEAM dismount. 

Melanie de Jesus dos Santos will compete in U.S. domestic meets this summer! Super cool. 

Simone Biles Owens is married! 

Social post of the week

Ellie Black answers your questions as she drives herself to the gym, and it’s just the best. 

Five at The IX: Aleah Finnegan

LSU’s Aleah Finnegan in her element. Photo credit: Chris Parent/LSU Athletics

We all knew Aleah Finnegan would be a star for LSU, but the 20-year-old had a breakout season as a sophomore this year as she blossomed into an all-arounder for the Tigers, becoming an AA All-American (she’s All-American on beam and floor, too!). She scored 10s on beam, vault, and floor during the season. Finnegan, who hails from Lee Summit, MO, and trained club at Great American Gymnastics Express (aka GAGE),  is a former U.S. national team member and also competed for the Philippines at the SEA Games after her freshman year at LSU. She is the youngest of four sisters, all of whom have been gymnasts (you might remember Sarah, who was also a standout at LSU) and a “big coffee person” who loves a good Starbucks iced caramel latte with oat milk. It was exciting to chat with Aleah after LSU’s up-and-down season that culminated in a fourth-place finish at nationals, and I’m so glad she found the time for The IX

You had a successful freshman season but were not an all-arounder. You really stepped up this year and became a rock for LSU in all four events, scoring 10s on beam, floor, and vault in the process. What was that like for you? 

AF: Last season I was only able to compete beam and floor. I had been training all four events coming in my freshman year. But I really was just kind of just dipping my toe into the collegiate world and seeing what that was like. And coming around for the second year, I had a better idea of, okay, like this is how it works. It’s a longer season. You have to take care of your body.

And I knew that I wanted to contribute to LSU and to this team as much as I could. So, coming in, you know, I was really focusing on training all four events, making sure I was ready to potentially put myself in the best position to be able to help.

Do you aspire to a gym slam, and if so, what do you think you need to accomplish to get there? 

AF: Of course it’s always something that’s in the back of my head. It’s, it’s funny because I don’t really try to think about being perfect. I just try to think about doing the best routine that I possibly can…and if the scores come, then they come.

What are your plans for the offseason?

AF: I’m thinking and praying about…what I want my summer to look like. I definitely want to take time to rest my body.

Obviously, it’s been a hectic season. It’s been a long one. So just making sure I get time to get my rehab in and focusing on giving my body a break. 

But of course, you know, there [is] some stuff in the back of my mind, potentially maybe in the fall, maybe in the end of summer, but it’s all kind of up in the air and nothing is for sure.

I think I know what you’re hinting at, but I’m going to leave it at that! 

AF: [Smiles mysteriously]

You are part of what appears to be a very close-knit team. How do you fit into that mix — what type of teammate are you? 

AF: Absolutely. This is such a special group of girls coming in…this past year. I think everybody kind of throws in [something] to really just bring our whole team together. You know, we have some of, like, the hype team, you know, the ones who are constantly screaming and hyping each other up.

You have the people who are maybe not as loud, but they’re the behind the scenes. You know, they’re constantly, like, running back and forth, doing things for other people that you don’t necessarily hear or see. And I think it’s so just special, just having such a group of girls that truly care about each other.

We truly love each other and we just want the best for each other as a whole.

If there was an Aleah Finnegan leotard, what would it look like? 

AF: Oh goodness. I mean, I feel like it would have to have at least some sort of purple and gold, right? 

I feel like my personality is more the outgoing type. You know, I love people. And so probably something with like some bright colors here and there. Nothing too, too crazy, but something that you feel confident wearing and something that you enjoy wearing. Because confidence is such like an important factor to me.

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Written by Lela Moore