Two pictures — Gym news — Thoughts from Trinity Thomas

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, March 26, 2022

Looking at the gymnastics news from this week, two photos stand out to me. The first is the header image above, of the UCLA gymnastics team. The second is the Team USA lineup at the DTB Challenge:

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This competition was great for Team USA, and especially for Konnor McClain‘s continued rise in the elite ranks. Team USA easily won the Mixed Cup ahead of second-place Germany (results at The Gymternet), and beat Italy in the Team Challenge, where McClain had a dominant performance individually, earning the top all-around score of the year with a 55.665 followed by Asia D’Amato and Martina Maggio (results at The Gymternet). McClain took the gold on beam as well with another excellent performance there.

It’s so exciting to see McClain continue to excel this year after such a difficult 2021. But it’s impossible not to acknowledge the elephant in the room here — Valeri Liukin’s presence as Team USA’s head coach. Mckenzie Wofford — one of the athletes who has accused Liukin of abuse — said it best:

The news of Liukin’s allegedly abusive coaching practices (gymnasts, by the way, continue to come forward, as one did this week) didn’t make waves in the mainstream media. It pissed off the gymnastics community, and justifiably so, but that’s not enough for USAG to even feign to make an effort to protect athletes. Instead, we get this photo, an eerie reproduction of what the program has been over the past few decades: a hugely successful one, but one that produces champions at the expense of athlete safety.

I’m not saying athletes aren’t safe with Liukin. As I’ve said in previous newsletters, if the allegations are true but he has changed, then that’s wonderful. But the fact that accusations against him aren’t being addressed before he’s allowed to continue coaching is a slap in the face to all those who’ve worked so hard to change the sport from within.

Which brings us to the second picture. UCLA has had a rough year, to say the least. After coming into this season with huge names on the freshman roster, they’ve underperformed, culminating in a fourth-place finish at last weekend’s Pac-12 Conference Championships. They come into the postseason ranked 14th, their lowest ranking since 2006 (see full standings at Road to Nationals). Just three years after winning the national title in 2018, in 2021 they placed third in the regional final, and aren’t likely to place higher this year, as they will probably face Michigan, LSU, and Missouri there.

I’m not going to pretend that I know everything that’s going on behind the scenes at UCLA, and I’m definitely not going to claim that the racism scandal is the only thing to blame for the team’s swift descent. But there’s no denying that tensions have been high since we found out earlier this year about allegations that Alexis Jeffrey made racist comments during her time on the team, and that, according to athletes including Margzetta Frazier, the administration’s response was underwhelming.

Frazier, for her part, has called for Waller to be fired, but continues to train and compete under him week after week. She and others like Norah Flatley have come forward to speak out against the administration at personal risk, and their voices should be heard.

Instead of making changes, though, UCLA seems keen on sweeping the issue under the rug and disregarding the feelings of some of its top athletes, and this is clear from this recent screenshot from Twitter user Danny. In the image, which comes from this season’s intro video, Jeffrey is simply cut out of the picture (luckily for the photoshopper, she was on the end of the line).

I’m not equating the larger issue of abuse in gymnastics with UCLA’s racism scandal. But what is similar here is the boldness of these organizations to either, on USAG’s part, openly disregard survivors by letting history repeat itself, or, on UCLA’s part, to erase that history. Unfortunately, the relative success of these teams could play a role in whether something changes — will Waller’s inaction inadvertently lead to an institutional overhaul by causing the team to underperform? — but the fact that it shouldn’t play a role, well, that goes without saying.

The first round of the NCAA postseason begins Wednesday, March 30th. Here’s your bracket, thanks to Inside Gymnastics, and a preview of regional semifinals, thanks to The Balance Beam Situation.

Gym news

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Trinity Thomas

Photo: Gators Gymnastics

Florida senior Trinity Thomas spoke to the media shortly before winning the all-around title at SEC Championships. Edited for clarity and length.

Going back to last week, you collected the 96th event win title in your Gator career, and that’s the most in team history, they tell me. What does that record mean to you, especially considering whose record you broke?
It’s definitely really cool. I mean, superstars have come before me. I looked up to Kytra, and then obviously it was Bridget’s record, right? I didn’t even know … I knew I was close, but I didn’t know that I was going to break it, and obviously I haven’t even been on as many events as I normally am, so I didn’t even know what was going on, for real. I wasn’t really paying that much attention. But it’s super cool just to just to know that and to just be able to strive for I don’t know, a hundred maybe?

Do you remember the first time you won one, and did you have any thought of accumulating this many?
Oh, no i’ve never really thought of like, a number necessarily. But I remember my first event title, I was like whoa, that’s pretty cool, because there were a lot of great girls my freshman year, and so it was cool to have an event title my freshman year.

Moving on to SEC Championships, what do you make of just how absurdly competitive this conference is? What kind of a special deal is this to be a part of?
Yes, this SEC Championships is going to be huge. The teams competing, we’re all so close and so competitive, so it’s going to be a really good competition and I’m super excited. I know my team is ready and I’m just excited to get out there and show them what we got.

Can you talk a little bit about how the upperclassmen serve as leaders, particularly in postseason, with helping the freshman stay focused as the stakes get higher and meets get bigger?
We all kind of help in our own way; we all kind of lead in our own way, and I think that’s what’s super special. You kind of have those people who are going to like talking to the group, and then you have the people who are going to talk one on one. I’m definitely one more to go up to them individually and be like, hey, what do you need, how you doing, do you have any questions. So, definitely just having everybody feel comfortable going into the postseason. And just having those discussions with them, and when they have questions, just answering their questions and letting them know, hey, this is big stuff, we’re excited, you guys have been doing great. They’re ready and when they have questions, they come to us and it’s just nice to have that relationship with them, but yeah, they’re definitely ready.

What do you anticipate the atmosphere being like with all the teams so close to each other, this weekend?
I don’t know; I don’t even know what to expect in that arena. I think it’s going to be loud, but it also might not, so [laughs]. I think it’ll be super interesting to see, because I know that each team is super competitive and we’re all really close in scores and averages and all that, so they know it’s going to be a tough meet. We know it’s going to be a tough meet, and honestly we’re just going to keep fighting till the end and because the meet’s never over till it’s over, and we’re excited to see what we can put up this weekend.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
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Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer