At the start of 2021, the fate of the NCAA gymnastics season in North America seemed tenuous at best. Schedules were being released last minute. Various schools had missed most or all of the preseason training due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Big Ten and Southeastern Conference announced they’d compete only with in their conferences.
There have been bumps along the road: a week when many of the top-ranked University of Florida team and its head coach had to miss a competition due to COVID-19 procedures, the University of Michigan teams had a two-week shutdown midseason and Auburn University missed out on a chance to compete at regionals, but all-in-all, the concerns of the start of season feel like a long-forgotten memory.
Now, their hard work and sacrifices reaches its ultimate conclusion as the NCAA championships get underway on Friday (16th April) in Ft. Worth, Texas, for the women, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the men.
Here’s what to look for – with some insight from 1984 Olympic champion and ESPN commentator Bart Conner.
A season of gratitude
With uncertainties like no other, the collegiate gymnastics community is feeling gratitude, says Conner.
“Every coach mentioned about how grateful the athletes are just to be able to be in the gym, be together, doing it in a safe way, and there was a lot of question marks as to what kind of season they would have, if any, and how many starts and stops,” he told Olympic Channel, of his conversations ahead of the NCAA championships.
The sport hasn’t arrived at this place easily, as procedures from testing and contact tracing to training in pods changed their typical flows.
“I know there's a lot of sacrifices and they have to keep them in pods of three and they don't eat together. There's so many sacrifices they've made,” says Conner. “So, the fact that we're even here... when we started, people were thinking, ‘I have no idea how many meets we're going to do’ and we're getting ready for the national championship and perhaps one of the most exciting we'll ever see, because there's never been this many teams who could win going into the national championships this week, is remarkable.”
‘Every school feels like they have a fighting chance'
Despite the challenges, more teams than ever have emerged as contenders for the national title on the women’s side. Powerhouses the University of Oklahoma and Florida, which have won – or shared – six of the last seven titles, remain the favourites.
But they’ll have to deliver.
“The college coaches have created enough parity that every school feels like they have a fighting chance and that's why their fans are so engaged,” Conner says. “That's where the stands are full. And to me, that's part of the beauty of what they've created with college gymnastics.”
If Florida or Oklahoma falters – or perhaps even if they don’t, there are teams waiting in the wings. One such team is the University of Michigan, which comes into the meet ranked second after a 198.100 score at Regionals, second only to OU.
Louisiana State University is the fourth-ranked team, and after four runner-up finishes in six seasons, they’ll be hungry for their first-ever title in Ft. Worth. But none of the teams can truly be counted out, with the University of California at Berkeley on the rise led by a stunning uneven bars lineup and perennial power University of Utah always a factor.
Conner notes that the level of parity has led to an increased spotlight on the sport, and a first-ever live U.S. network broadcast of the finals.
“We’ll be on ESPN2 for two shows on Friday and then on ABC television on Saturday, which is it's never done before,” said Conner. “Every year, we add more shows. There's such parity in women's college gymnastics that it's always fun because no matter what meet you tune into, there's always a contest and the scores are close.
“It comes down often to the last couple of routines, and there's a lot of drama. It makes for a terrific television show.”
What is Trinity Thomas’ status
It’s been a tough two years for Florida. Their season ended early in 2019 after a disaster at the regional championships left them on the outside looking in. Then, 2020 happened and the gymnastics college season was shutdown before the post-season even began.
That’s motivating to junior standout Trinity Thomas, who in addition to her NCAA ambitions is targeting June’s U.S. Olympic trials for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“I feel like we've had to overcome a lot,” Thomas told Olympic Channel earlier this year. “My freshman year, we didn't make it as a team. Sophomore year, we got cut short because of other things that were going on. So, I think, third time's the charm and we'll get out there and get it done this year.”
And a lot of their chances may depend on Thomas’ status. She was injured late in the regular season and was limited to the uneven bars at both the SEC Championships and Regionals. Conner says coach Jenny Rowland expects her back on all four events for nationals.
“I spoke with Jenny Rowland the other day and she said they anticipate having her in the all-around. They're going to adjust a couple of her routines,” said Conner. “But, you know, there's still some question marks. It’s a two-day meet. It's hard on these athletes to go two days back-to-back and a quick turnaround. We'll have to wait and see what happens.”
Minnesota hosts as men's future uncertain
On the men’s side, top-ranked Oklahoma is looking for redemption after their string of four-straight titles was upended by Stanford University in 2019. They looked on track last year to regain the title before sports shutdown in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their biggest competition is likely no. 2 Michigan, who boasts men’s Winter Cup champion Cameron Bock and national team member Paul Juda.
But the competition comes at a fragile time for the sport in the USA. There are only a dozen or so men’s collegiate programs left, and host Minnesota is in its last season. The University of Iowa also announced the end of its men’s gymnastics program following the 2020-21 season.
“It’s devastating,” says Conner, who competed for the University of Oklahoma. “Men's gymnastics is one of the few sports on campus that is world class level.
“I said to Joe Castiglione, the athletic director at the University of Oklahoma, several years ago, ‘You have no other sport at the school where athletes are in the top 10 on the planet. No football player, tennis player, baseball player,’ and I said, ‘you have Yul Moldauer over there, whose top ten on the planet.’ That’s what you have in men's gymnastics. You got to figure out a better way to sell that story to the public.”