35th annual Girls & Women in Sport Day – February 3, 2021, or NCAA Gymnastics Makes You Feel Good About The Sport

college gymnast on bars
Gymnast from SUNY Cortland on bars against West Chester University, Feb. 2020.

Please forgive me for not having posted in such a long time, but I’m going to try to make up for it in the coming weeks. To start off with, here is something I posted to my personal Facebook page (for all of my Facebook friend, few of whom are gymnastics fans at all) on February 5th, with just a few relatively minor edits. It’s pretty off the cuff and there are parts I would reword or add or delete if I took the time, but I think I should post as is and then work on new posts. It focuses on NCAA gymnastics as a great example of progress in women’s sports, & my opinion about collegiate gymnastics’ place within the larger sport of WAG.

photo of gymnast Elise Ray U of Michigan 2004 NCAA NE regional
Above: photo of 2000 Olympian Elise Ray competing for the University of Michigan at the 2004 NCAA Northeast Regional Championship held at State College, PA., on her way to winning the AA that night.  She had survived being one of Béla Károlyi’s’s petite hostages at the miserable Sydney Games, rediscovering her love of the sport in NCAA & then went on to become head coach of the Washington Huskies, stepping down after the abbreviated 2020 season to spend time with family. Photo by me © Jim Bierbaum / fotosportif.com
   Almost in time to be a day late, I wanted to mention that Wednesday, February 3, 2021 was the 35th annual Girls & Women in Sports Day, wonderfully commemorated by A Mighty Girl Facebook page. Recent years have seen women make significant strides in pro sports, such as getting increasing prize money and fighting for pay parity with the men in women’s sports like tennis & soccer. Then there’s the rise of viable women’s pro basketball and soccer leagues, and women entering the formerly men-only clubs of pro football & basketball coaching and officiating, and lots more.
     But the most advancement has probably taken place at the collegiate level. Old-school chauvinists—the Frank DeFords of the sports journalism world—have loudly wailed and moaned for 35 years about how Title IX is stealing money from “real” sports like men’s football, or men’s basketball, or men’s baseball, or men’s badminton—pretty much men’s anything, and wasting those precious dollars on women’s sports that don’t matter to anyone & suck anyway. But women’s collegiate sport has blossomed and year after year continues to grow in popularity since the passage of Title IX, not to mention greatly increasing opportunities for athletic scholarships for women. Of course, the sport that I know the most about is gymnastics, so I will use it as an example of what women’s collegiate sports has to offer. Some of the things going for NCAA gymnastics are:
1) it’s a real, honest-to-goodness team sport, with the best six athletes for each apparatus (vault, bars, floor & beam) chosen from a roster of a more than a dozen, such that at any given meet it’s theoretically possible you might never see the same gymnast perform twice. The whole team loudly cheers on their teammate from right next to the apparatus, & afterward it’s hearty high fives (mostly air fives in the COVID-19 age, with by & large appropriate use of masks);
2) All the athletes are obviously having a lot of fun competing—there are more smiles in one rotation of college gymnastics than you’ll find in an entire elite competition (team, all-around, & individual apparatus). The competitors in NCAA WAG also live up to the term “women’s” gymnastics, fully grown, with hips & boobs & maybe even *gasp!* a little bit of body fat, unlike the high-strung, emaciated little zombies who inhabit elite gymnastics;
3) As the Olympics steadily whittles down the number of team members for each country (do you remember 1996’s “Magnificent Seven” who won gold in Atlanta? 2012’s Team USA was the “Fierce Five” & in Tokyo it will be the “Fortunate Four” or whatever they’re called—nicknames for Team USA are all the rage these days), the slimmer the chances of any gymnast to earn one of those spots. Thus, this steady narrowing of the chances of making the Olympic team has helped contribute to this next item;
4) Nowadays, most of the top elite gymnasts, including former US national team members & even Olympians go on to compete in NCAA instead of retiring when they either make the Olympic team or they don’t. This was not the case for the 1996 Mag 7, all of whom gave up their NCAA eligibility in order to cash in on the exhibition tours that followed their Atlanta gold (granted, some of them earned enough to pay for a college education several times over). The trend toward going to NCAA from elite is more & more becoming the norm (such that at a dual meet between, for example, UCLA & Alabama, you will see at least half a dozen former US national team members & an Olympian or two, plus a sprinkling of Olympians from other countries (there have been former national team members from UK, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, & others competing in the NCAA);
5) NCAA gymnastics is steadily growing in popularity with fans, both in person & on TV. Take the case of University of Utah — mind you, not all schools draw these sorts of numbers, but the Utes in 2019 averaged crowds of over 15,000 for all of their home meets. The top five fill up the same arenas where the basketball team plays, such that if the Ute’s women’s gymnastics team was a instead a men’s basketball team, they would be the 14th best draw in all of college basketball! Georgia, UCLA, Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Florida & other schools routinely fill their basketball arenas for home meets, it’s that fun & exciting to watch (& the crowds are as loud & rowdy as the athletes). And those fannies in the seats paid for their ticket. In the 2019 season the Utes WAG team brought in over $600,000 in ticket revenue for five home meets; and finally,
photo of Kendall Beck, gymnast for Stanford University in 2004
Kendall Beck, MD, on beam for Stanford in their meet against home team University of Maryland Terps in 2004. Dr. Beck is just one of an amazing THREE members of that 2004 Stanford Cardinal team who went on to medical school & today is a practicing MD. The others or Dr. Lise Léveillé & Dr. Stacy Sprando (now Valenzuela). Beck & Léveillé are also both assistant professors on the faculty of the medical school from which each graduated. [photo is mine © Jim Bierbaum / fotosportif.com
6) Unlike their male counterparts in football and basketball — who (this is an overbroad generalization, but with much truth to it) seem to treat college sports as an audition for multi-million dollar pro contracts, & whine that they can’t start earning their millions while they are still in college, majoring in physical education or sports marketing or underwater basket weaving, the studying for which they often pay some nerd to do for them instead of doing it themselves — top NCAA gymnasts know that college virtually always means the end of their competitive career, rather than the start, and they fully appreciate the value of a full-ride sports scholarship to a top university, as a springboard to a lifelong career in the field of their choice. They almost universally take their studies very seriously, collectively earning as many academic All-American honors as the athletic kind. As perhaps the epitome of the NCAA ideal of “scholar-athlete” I am reminded of the 2004 Stanford Cardinal women’s gymnastics team, which I had the pleasure of watching compete against the Maryland Terps at College Park. That 2004 Stanford squad had the following team members (I grant you, not all colleges have the same academic standards as Stanford, but checki it out, this is just sick): Lindsay Wing, former US national team member (hereafter referred to as ‘Team USA’); Kendall Beck, former Team USA, after Stanford went on to medical school & is now a gastroenterologist & assistant professor at UCSF medical school; Caroline Fluhrer, 3-time Level 10 regional champion, BS & MS from Stanford in engineering, currently a building design performance engineer in the Seattle area; Lise Léveillé, represented Canada at the 2000 Olympics, after Stanford went on the medical school & is now orthopaedic surgeon, & assistant professor & Director of Undergraduate Medical Education at University of British Columbia Medical School; Glyn Sweets former JO (Level 10) national champion, now a Content Strategist for Facebook in San Francisco; Stacy Sprando, 2003 Level 10 national bars champion, went on to Oregon Health & Sciences University School of Medicine, & now specializes in Emergency Medicine/Pediatric Emergency Medicine at a Portland hospital affiliated with OHSU; In addition to those team members, the current head coach of Stanford since 2017 is Tabitha Yim — former Team USA bronze medalist at the at 2001 World Championships — who would have also been on the 2004 Stanford roster but delayed enrollment for a year in hopes of making the 2004 Olympic team (but she missed selection camp due to injury). She then went on to compete for The Cardinal starting in 2005. Loaded with that kind of athletic talent, the 2004 Cardinal team is just as impressive in their subsequent achievements beyond the gym. Almost every has probably seen a few viral videos on YouTube of a remarkable NCAA floor routine, but if all you know of gymnastics is the Olympics, you really should check out any of the dozens of NCAA full meets from 2019 & years past you can find there (meets in 2020 & 2021 are sparsely attended because of COVID-19). I think you’ll be surprised at how entertaining & exciting the sport is. NCAA gymnastics is the best kept secret in college sports, but the secret is starting to get out.

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