The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, March 27, 2021

The NCAA postseason is upon us! — Euros nominative roster — Interview with Jenny Rowland

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The problem with NCAA gym

It’s time to talk about NCAA gymnastics.

To be frank, I’ve always been more of an elite girl. I remember the very first time I saw an NCAA routine — it was Bridget Sloan doing an Yurchenko full on vault. When she stuck it, she and her teammates exploded into cheers, high fives, and lots of jumping. I thought, was she sick? Did she just come back from an injury? But no — that’s just the way NCAA is. 

I can’t deny the allure of that — the team spirit and the energy are infectious and something that we don’t get much of in the elite world. Rarely does an elite floor routine go viral, as many NCAA routines have done. As a result, members of the media (e.g., AP, Refinery29, Wall Street Journal) tend to present NCAA gymnastics as the fun counterpart to its dysfunctional cousin. Fans celebrate that their favorite elites look “so happy” now that they’ve made it to college, and T-shirts that read “NCAA: Where elites go to be happy” are for sale online.

But as the college gym postseason kicks off, I think it’s time we sit down and have a discussion about why it might not necessarily be a good thing to keep drawing this contrast. 

No matter how much fun we think college gymnasts are having, the Larry Nassar scandal has put us in the unfortunate but necessary position of assuming nothing about what goes behind the scenes at NCAA programs. Painting NCAA as the “fun” subset of the sport overlooks the vast spectrum of experiences athletes have in the over 80 women’s gymnastics programs. Plus, as we saw with Larry Nassar, a reputation that deflects criticism can be a powerful tool for abusers, making it more difficult for gymnasts to come to terms with their experiences and come forward.

Because abuse and toxic behavior does allegedly happen at the NCAA level — complaints have emerged as recently as this summer. In a tweet from August, Florida grad Kennedy Baker wrote that she experienced racism from other teammates during her time at the program, and that coaches swept her complaints under the rug. Similar allegations arose from alums of Nebraska, UC Davis, and Alabama (for more on this, check out this ESPN piece, including how universities have responded to the allegations). Alyssa Beckerman, a former UCLA gymnast during the reign of the much-celebrated Miss Val, said in a statement that “Every interaction I had with Miss Val, I was treated with indifference, derision, or hostility” (Miss Val responded in a Twitter post, saying she has apologized to Beckerman). Iowa State grad Kristen LaFrance said in a Medium post that she was told to train and compete despite being concussed, that “my head coach told the entire team our whole failure of a season was my fault,” and that she was pressured to continue competing and training on a severely injured arm (The IX has reached out to Iowa State for comment).

In the aftermath of the worst sports abuse scandal of all time, it’s tempting to find a silver lining in NCAA gymnastics. But doing so is a mistake that may actually help perpetuate a problem that, yes, may exist.

On that light note, it’s the postseason. Teams just emerged from their conference championships, where #9 Denver upset #1 Oklahoma, #1 Florida — missing star all-arounder Trinity Thomas on three events due to injury — came in a disappointing third at SECs, where #7 Alabama also beat #3 LSU; #8 Minnesota beat #4 Michigan at Big Ten; and #6 Utah and #5 California went 1-2 at Pac-12. Georgia didn’t show up because of COVID.

Next up, regionals. The top 36 teams were bracketed for the postseason, with the first regional competition scheduled for Thursday, April 1. Jenna King of College Gym News has an in-depth explanation of why this selection system is bonkers. Basically, NCAA gymnastics teams are supposedly seeded geographically rather than on rankings, so this makes for an unfair distribution of teams. But if something was fair in gymnastics we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves, now would we.

If you’re interested in deep (and hilarious) analysis of this and all things NCAA gymnastics, I would be doing you an immense disservice if I didn’t direct you to The Balance Beam Situation, which is the go-to for such things. Also, Road to Nationals has all of the latest scores and standings for you stat-inclined people.

Euros nominative roster

The nominative roster for the European Championships, set to be held in late April, is out! This is exciting in part because, as I mentioned in a previous, more complicated post, the top two all-arounders from this competition will qualify spots to the Olympic Games. That means teams have brought out the big guns here, sending some of their top athletes in hopes of earning a spot.

First, Russia. The Big Three program is sending its current top two gymnasts, national champ Victoria Listunova and runner up Vladislava Urazova. Russia already has a team and one individual spot, so they’ll be looking to max out their Olympic opportunities here. Other countries looking to get an add-on spot here include Great Britain, which is sending the Gadirova twins and Claudia Fragapane; Germany, which will be represented by Emma Malewski; and Italy, represented by Vanessa Ferrari and Martina Maggio. 

Possibly the only gymnast here without a team who could qualify an individual spot is Romania’s Larisa Iordache, who’s coming back after a billion years out. I’m personally a huge fan of hers and I hope she wins it all.

Individuals who either helped their country earn a team spot or who earned an individual spot at worlds are not eligible to qualify here, so many of the gymnasts on the roster are there just to spice things up. These athletes include Angelina Melnikova, Giulia Steingruber, the Wevers twins, Nina Derwael, Giorgia Villa, Melanie de Jesus dos Santos … the list goes on. Olympic qualification aside, this is going to be a stiff competition — if it happens.

Hint: Head to The Gymternet for a full list of Olympic qualifiers 😉

Gymnastics links

  • …Also, a sneak peek at Flavia’s new floor routine

Tweet of the week

Five at the IX: Jenny Rowland

Here’s what Florida head coach Jenny Rowland had to say at a press conference on Wednesday ahead of the regional championships.

What would you say the mood of the team was after the SEC championship?

I can’t lie, the mood wasn’t fabulous. It wasn’t those positive vibes that this team has experienced all year long. It was a very, I mean, you can say humbling experience … the team had a really good discussion yesterday and it’s something that we can look back on and now say, that meet did not define who this team is. But there are definitely some lessons to learn in order to move forward and have the success that they know that they’re capable of having. So, the mood went from pretty low to, hey, we’re on track and let’s keep going.

Was the decision for Trinity Thomas to only compete one event at SEC’s made with regionals in mind?

That’s the decision Trinity made. Something that we try really hard and make it a point [to emphasize] is that this is each of these student-athletes’ lives, this is their career and to take ownership. And Trinity is the one that actually wanted to compete bars. So given her history, given her training, given what she means to this team, she had earned that opportunity. 

What would you say your message for the team going into regionals next week would be?

The message I think that really came to fruition was that the Gators just need to be themselves. I would say that the Gators were focusing on too many uncontrollables throughout the competition last week, and the bottom line is we just need to focus on what we know we’re capable of doing and have fun doing it. 

How did the team respond in practice?

Yesterday was one of the best practices. Actually, not one of the best, but it was a, I would say, “normal” practice for this team. The last couple of weeks it’s been up and down and up and down. And really it’s this entire year — I could see it’s taken a toll on every student-athlete in the country. Emotionally, I can see that it’s taken a toll on these student-athletes. They’ve persevered, they’ve had so many trials, so many tribulations. But bottom line is, we’ve had so many opportunities to do what we love doing and I think just looking at the big picture and taking a step back really puts things back into perspective for this team … And I think that kind of got pushed to the side just a little bit. But yesterday was a fantastic practice I can say, without a doubt.

What does the team need to do better at regionals?

The team just needs to focus on the team and not anything outside; no scores, not what anybody else is doing. Really just be present on what is going on at that moment and really truly believe that everything else will fall into place when the Gators do that. 

How is Trinity’s recovery coming?

I would say her recovery is coming along well. As a coach, and I’m sure Trinity herself, you want it to be healed overnight and feel better and ready to go, and you know what? Patience is a virtue. And she has been very patient. It really hasn’t been all that long, but she is working really hard in everything that she can to be prepared to the best of her ability, whatever that looks like for the rest of the season for this team.

What was it like to win SEC Coach of the Year?

It is truly an honor and something I really don’t have the words to describe right now given this entire year. This award just really encompasses this entire team and all the work that we have done together to accomplish what this team has accomplished … more than most teams ever will in their entire career. I’m really thankful for these opportunities with this team and really excited to continue on this journey with them for a couple more weeks. 

The semi finals will be on ESPN2 and ABC will air the championships for the first time. How big of a deal is that?

It is so exciting and so awesome, I just get goosebumps thinking about it. I’m really excited to showcase a sport that not only am I so passionate about but so many others are passionate about on such a huge broadcast. So really excited for the opportunity for the whole country and others who may not normally tune into a gymnastics meet to be able to experience what college gymnastics is all about. And really it’s that team environment, it’s the pure joy of sport and competitiveness and athleticism and grace and everything all combined in one. So really thankful for that opportunity and excited that NCAA gymnastics is going to be showcased. 

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
By Sarah Kellam @sarahkellam, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer

Written by The IX Team