Wednesday, March 11, 2009



(Or, the longest Couch Gymnast Entry EVER!!!)

In Abby Stack's last and sentimental blog entry this week, she wrote a little paragraph about her first year in college gymnastics, saying 

"I remember how hard we worked and played. We ran three times a week out on the field and we'd go to class all sweaty and gross. We would hang out together after meets in the dorm and go to a local resaurant on Sundays. We were undefeated and went into Nationals with complete confidence. There are times I miss my freshman year when we were so innocent and life was simple."

It got me thinking about freshman gymnasts.  I am sure, in the United States, that going off to college is a pretty big deal for a lot of kids- especially those that move far from home and find themselves having to be all grown up, living on campus and fending with the pressures of getting a serious education- those who take it seriously of course!
For gymnasts who take up an NCAA scholarship or join their college gymnastics teams, the change must be even more drastic.  There are a lot of new experiences to contend with. Not only are they getting used to college life, they are getting used to juggling their sport and their education and all the changes that come from adjusting to the differences between the pace and pressure of being an elite or club gymnast and the pace and pressure of being a college gymnast.
So, todays list is about the kinds of experiences freshman gymnasts have to learn adjust to in order to make a successful transition into college gymnastics.

Finding the "I" in Team

Of course, one of the biggest changes is going from competing individually to joining an intensely team oriented environment.  Even those who come to college gymnastics from a serious elite career where they have also competed for their country, they will still have spent most of their career competing as an individual.  The team focus can bring about a lot of new experiences. 
Megan Ferguson, who joined the Oklahoma University team this year said that while at first she was nervous of meeting the girls,  she now "absolutely loves" team environment because; 

"You've got your team to back you up and help you if you have a problem."

Kylie Smith, a freshman at Minnesota also pointed out the flip side of the team support, knowing that "my team mates are counting on me as much as I am counting on them."  This pressure, however, she says only helps her team be as good as they can for each other.

Alicia Sacramone compared her team experience at Brown to her elite career, saying; 

"In college everyone is pulling for each other and I am all about pulling for each other."

Also, not only do you have to learn to compete as a team, you have to embrace the relentlessly social team environment.  This may be confronting at first for those used to working out alone with their coaches. Enjoying the sport will also depend on the gymnast's ability to develop a close relationships with the rest of the girls.

Georgia Gym Dog Courtney McCool had trouble making the transition from elite to college as a freshman in terms of letting people get close to her, according to Suzanne Yoculan,

 "At the elite level, when you walk into the gym to train, you don't bring problems with you and emotions with you.  And that's what I saw from her for a year; a gymnast who was intense and unemotional and a little bit detached.  This year she is a completely different person.  She's connected more."

Leslie Mak of OSU, was forced to find new support when her sister, whom she is very close with, went to Yale to study and do gymnastics while Mak found herself in Oregon. She found a new, supportive relationship with her team mates,

"I think every girl supports me in different ways.  We all help with cheering and moving mats, or even outside the gym with school and  personal things.  But my team mate Adonica stands out the most.  You'd think seeing someone 24/7 would drive you crazy, but Addy and I have this freakish bond where we can get along so well."

For Brittani McCulloch, an injury that took her out of her freshman year meant that she learned "more about how gymnastics is a team sport and how you can help and contribute to your team by doing more than gymnastics."

Dealing with a New Boss

Some athletes have had the same coach since they first began in the sport, and the relationship between a coach and an athlete can be an close one.  Moving to college means all of a sudden having to take orders from, and to find support in a new head coach and their staff.  This must take some adjusting to.
As I have mentioned in a previous post, it was Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs coach, Carol Angela Orchard who convinced her to go and enjoy a college career at UCLA despite Elyse's initial misgivings.  Now, UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos-Field (lord, what is it with these triple-barrel names!) said in an interview that after every single meet, Elyse feels compelled to thank her for letting her be part of  this new and exciting competitive experience!
Courtney McCool, coming off her disappointment after Athens, the frustration of a long, long wrist injury, and her very, very close relationship with Al and Armine Fong (whom she claimed were nothing but wonderful to her as an athlete in in response to the Hong claims) had difficulties adjusting to a new coach. Suzanne Yoculan said that Courtney, who came to Georgia as "a sad girl" had trouble letting Suzanne in at first. 
Stella Umeh cites coach Valorie Kondos-Field as the reason she went to UCLA, 

"I felt that she really understood me and respected me as a person and as an athlete.  Your relationship with your coach can really make or break you college experience and I couldn't have found that same relationship anywhere else."

Kondos-Field also found herself having to tell Mohini Bhardwaj to clean up her act or to leave the Bruins at some point in her freshman year.  Even so, Kondos-Field knew there was something in Mohini's attitude toward her that meant they could have a good coach/gymnast relationship.  

"From our very first conversation I saw a spirit in her that I really identified with and respected. The fact that she was honest with me about things that weren't complimentary to her meant a lot to me."

Mohini trusted and responded to Valorie, caming to her second year as a better, more disciplined gymnast.  She then went on to have one of the most successful NCAA careers ever had by a gymnast.

Making Yourself at Home

As I said, many college gymnasts have to move a long way to get into the university and onto the team that best suits their educational and athletic desires.  This can lead to homesickness and finding themselves acculturating to very different lifestyles.  
No one knows this more than Olivia Vivian who moved all the from Australia to take up a scholarship at Oregon State University.  Olivia joked about her new 'country' home in her regular sports diary in The Daily Barometer.  

"People commonly ask me why i chose Oregon State?  It's simple, I love the constant rain and the smell of cows in the morning...just kidding.  I chose OSU one, because I didn't know what the weather was like coming from Australia, and two, because of the wonderful gymnastics program they have here."

Stella Umeh had a very hard time adjusting to the Los Angles cultural life during her college career.  

"I was in a four-year depression while at UCLA.  I hated Los Angeles and found the people to be pseudo-creative.  I felt unattractive and self-conscious in a city of hand-painted beauty.  Integrity made me stay.  I made a commitment to Val and I wasn't going to break it."

Of her transition from Canada to L.A years after  Umeh, Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs said,

 "the transition from Canada to California has been the hardest part for me so far.  I really love living in Canada so moving away was the hardest part for me.  The things i miss are the seasons.  I love autumn and winter, and here, in California, they dont really exist!!  I'm not complaining about the sun, that's for surer, but its just one more adjustment i need to make."

Juggling the daily schedule.

College athletes have to find ways to train, compete, do community and team activities AND keep on top of their study. Sometimes all in a day. This can be a monumental task.
Amber Trani of UGA is fortunate enough to belong to a highly organised team.  She wrote in her journal about the benefits of having of Yoculan holding a team meeting on Monday nights so she can organise her diary in advance. She said in her freshman year,
 "It's been a little bit difficult balancing my schedule.  Between practice, tutors, studying and homework, it all gets a little crazy."

Or, as Olivia Vivian so aptly described a typical day, 

"Waking up, eating, going to class, treating injuries, eating, class, practice, eating, homework, eating and sleep.  Repeat the next day!"

Alicia Sacramone is a prime example of doing it hard.  Not only was she juggling college gymnastics and an ivy league education, studying subjects like art history and Italian literature at Brown university last year, she was still in elite training for the Beijing Olympics!  Alicia claimed to need the mix of activities though, saying,

"It has kept me more sane.  If i was just doing gymnastics, I'd go a little crazy.  At least this way, I get a little variety." 

A  Glutton for punishment perhaps? 

For some, the pressure can be too much.  In 2008 Julie Cotter, of Alabama decided to return home during her freshman year.  Coach Sarah Patterson said she encouraged Julie to work through the transition period and give it some time, and if not, to at least focus on her studies for the rest of the semester.  Julie still decided to leave after returning from the fall break.


It may seem simple.  You go to college to study.  But lets not forget that many gymnasts, particularly those in elite, school took a back seat to their sport and they have not had to study with the intensity required for an undergraduate education.  In high school some took less classes to alleviate their workload, some did the bare minimum to get decent grades and some were even home schooled.  College is a whole new world for these kids.

Hilary Mauro wrote in her blog for the Gym Dogs that, 

"when I first got here the work load was a kick in the face, especially after only taking three classes in high school!"

Nina Kim was home schooled through middle school, and though her grades have been good because of the hard work she has put while at Utah, she is still unsure of a future path, 

 "I like to draw.  It's what I love the most that I've done, but I want to teach and I want to do this and that.  But I don't know."

Being a Role Model

A lot of College sports team  make their gymnasts take part in charitable activities, promoting the athletes as shining example of community-spirit and high-mindedness.  While most gymnasts seem to genuinely enjoy taking part in these things, it is just another thing to put into their already crammed diaries.
The Georgia Gym Dogs helped gather food for a local food bank last year.  "As a team we raised a large amount of food" Trani said in her journal, 

 "It felt great to be part of it."

Amanda Castillo realised the importance of her status after her freshman year at Florida, saying that when she first came 

"I just knew I wanted to come to the university of Florida.  I wanted to walk the campus and graduate with a UF degree.  Being a Gator gymnast is even more than that.  As a Gator athlete people see me as a role model."

The Crowds

Not all the changes are tough.  College gym meets are unlike club meets where the crowds are fairly reserved as a general rule.  College meets, on the other hand, are high octane.  Most gymnasts new to college find the frenzied, noisy atmosphere an exciting change.
Kylie Smith named the crowd as the most exciting prospect of her first meet.  

"I have never competed at a meet where everyone is cheering for me.  At club meets, of course my parents were cheering and other gymnasts from my club were cheering for me, but I've never had a couple of thousand people watching my routines and cheering for me!"

Tauny Frattone of UCLA said that crowds helped because,

 "The fans are a big part of our competitions because they help keep the energy up."

The Hours

NCAA rules mean that gymnasts often have to cut down their training hours from what it was before they came to college.  Doing so means finding ways to produce more 'quality' rather than 'quantity' workouts.
Megan Ferguson joked in an interview that one of the things that was harder to get used to when she joined OU was the 6am conditioning they had to do three times a week in the pre-season.  Who can blame her?!
For Olivia Vivian, the change to NCAA gave her a new lease on her gymnastics life.  She told readers of her diary, 

"I heard that college gymnastics was very different and that it was an NCAA rule that you couldn't train more than 20 hours a week!  I will admit the sound of no more than 20 hours a week made me smile.  Now that I have experienced college gymnastics, I have found my passion for gymnastics again.  It's like when you find something you love to eat, then you eat it too often and get sick of it.  Then after a long period of time, you try it again, and once again, its the best thing ever.  But after doing a certain style of gymnastics for so long, this adjustment is exactly what I needed."

Mohini Bhardwaj had a similar experience at UCLA.  On graduating, she said,

 "In the past I felt somewhat forced to do gymnastics when I didn't want to, so I stopped liking it.  Over the course of the past four years i learned to love it."

Jamie Dansztcher said she enjoyed training less hours when she first came to UCLA and that, 

"my body has definitely felt the difference."

Corey Hartung said after her freshman year that 

"It's nice.  Practice is a little shorter, but it's more fun and relaxing."

Getting Through the Season

The college meet season is relentless.  In only a few months, a college gymnast who is in the lineup will compete a far greater number of times than she would usually have in her elite or club career.  This can put a lot of pressure on an athlete to find the consistency, guts and tenacity to perform well.. and often.  This takes a lot of physical as well as mental resilience.

Adrienne Perry who is now a senior at  Missouri University said one of the hardest things to acclimatize to for her was the long series of meets during the season.  

"As a freshman  the hardest thing i struggled with was going from only competing five times a year to competing 16 times.  I literally had a meltdown in the middle of my freshman year because i was just so drained.  I was so tired."

For some, the pressure helps.  Kelly Garrison, who competed for Oklahoma whilst also training for the Seoul Olympic games said that her NCAA augmented her elite training because 

"When i started competing in college I became more consistent because i competed more often."

Making the Lineup

Of course, making it onto the college team does not necessarily mean getting to compete.  You also have to make the lineup,  and then prove your competitive mettle in order to STAY in the lineup.  This can be a difficult thing for gymnasts who have come off being among the best in their club or team, to going entire seasons without competing, or competing in only one or two events.  
This is precisely what happened to Utah freshman Stephanie McAllister this year when she found herself with only one regular spot on bars at meets and most of the spots going to upper classmen.  This has not, however, stopped her from working on cracking the lineup in the other three events.  Coach Greg Marsden described Stephanie as "frothing", saying he admires the hunger in her because, 

"most people people wouldn't be bold enough to ask as a freshman.  She's got a very outgoing personality and she didn't do it at all in a negative way.  It was a very positive thing."

 (Phew!  That was one long post.  It was one of those subjects where the more you research the more you find!  But it has to stop NOW!)


  1. OH YEAH!!!! Great, quality post. I really think you hit the tough aspects for a freshman gymnast.

    Lately I have been thinking a lot about what makes gymnastics so tough in general. Then I read this article from international gymnast that really made me think. It was from their interview of Courtney Kupets. They asked her the following question:

    IG: What do you think is the hardest thing for gymnasts to handle?

    CK: There are two things that are the hardest about gymnastics: injury and fear. I've battled both of them. It's just how you get through them. If you believe you can get through an injury and fight back, and you really love gymnastics enough, you can get through it. With fear, you have to go back to the basics. Fear is incredible in gymnastics, because you're throwing yourself around on equipment and you have to land on your feet or you're going to hurt yourself. I think the fear is that you'll hurt yourself. Those two things are so hard in gymnastics. They're not fun at all, but if you can get through them, it makes everything worth it.

    Such a compelling statement in my opinion...

  2. Great post. This would be good for all aspiring NCAA gymnasts to read, so they will be prepared for what's ahead of them.

  3. You don't know what Crazy Frog is?

    You have been warned...

    It started as this:

    Then evolved to this:

    PS- Love the post, some great quotes in there!

  4. What is college like for Australians?