Where EAST meets the Northwest
"BEACON OF GOODNESS." Auburn gymnast Sunisa Lee performs during a meet at the
University of Michigan on March 12, 2022 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A record crowd
came out to watch Lee, the reigning Olympic champion, and Auburn take on
defending national champion Michigan. The arrival of Lee and several of her
Olympic teammates at the collegiate level is helping fuel a spike in interest
and participation in NCAA womenís gymnastics. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
From The Asian Reporter, V32, #4 (April 4, 2022), pages 9 & 10.
"Beacon of goodness": NCAA womenís gymnastics is booming
By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
Sunisa Lee and the rest of the Auburn womenís gymnastics team filed out of
Stegeman Coliseum on Georgiaís campus in mid-February, equal parts exhausted and
giddy. A happy three-hour trip home awaited after the Tigers edged the Gymdogs
on the road for just the second time in program history.
Then the doors to the parking lot swung open and what is normally a low-key
part of every away meet became something else entirely. A group of 300 or so
fans surrounded the Auburn bus, many hoping to grab Lee, the reigning Olympic
all-around champion, or one of her teammates for a selfie. Or a signature. Or a
wave. Maybe a smile.
"Itís like we were in a boy band," longtime Auburn coach Jeff Graba said. "It
took us an hour to get out of Georgia. Itís exciting."
And itís all part of the show in womenís college gymnastics, a sport whose
profile is rising with every perfect score. Every packed house. Every viral
floor routine. Every TV broadcast. Certainly at every university ó from Clemson
(student population 23,000-plus) to Fisk (less than 1,000) ó looking to join a
movement that is very much having a moment.
While elite programs have been struggling in recent years ó the U.S., Canada,
England, and Australia are among the countries whose national governing bodies
are scrambling to emerge from the cloud of what athletes say is a "toxic
culture" ó NCAA gymnastics has become a safe space where young women can reclaim
control of their careers and in some cases, regain their passion for a sport
that can often take far more than it gives.
"Itís more like a positive kind of place," said Lee, who last August became
the sixth American to win the Olympic all-around title.
Itís one of the main reasons Lee stuck to her commitment to Auburn even after
her star turn in Tokyo. The relaxation of name, image, and likeness guidelines
that let Lee and Olympic teammates Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jade Carey (Oregon
State), and Grace McCallum (Utah) compete in college without forfeiting the
chance to cash in on their newfound fame didnít hurt.
The influx of high-profile Olympians truly began after the 2004 games, though
Lee is the first Olympic champion to compete collegiately. The boom is fuelled
by something else, too: Competing in college plays in stark contrast to the
elite world of gymnastics emerging from a torrent of allegations of physical,
mental, and emotional abuse.
"We are sort of the beacon of goodness in our sport right now," LSU coach Jay
Clark said. "Our sport has taken so many negative hits for various reasons over
the last 5-6 years, people look at college gymnastics as the saving grace."
This all comes as outlets like the SEC, Big Ten, and ACC Network over the
last decade have given womenís gymnastics a level of exposure that didnít exist
a generation ago.
ABC aired the national championships on broadcast television for the first
time in a decade last April. This season, ESPN aired more than 60 hours of
gymnastics and ABC televised a regular-season meet for the first time when SEC
power Florida hosted Alabama. ABC will also broadcast the NCAA finals on April
16 and last weekís four regional meets were all carried on ESPN-plus, with
national semifinals returning to ESPN2 on April 14.
"It just goes to show if you put gymnastics on a place thatís accessible
instead of some obscure livestream thatís impossible to find, people are going
to watch and support it," said Michigan senior Natalie Wojcik, who helped the
Wolverines capture the programís first NCAA title last spring.
A new approach in the way TV covers the sport has helped. SEC dual meets are
packed into taut 90-minute windows on the ESPN-operated SEC Network, with a
running score chyron in the corner of the screen to immediately get viewers
invested. Throw in school fan base support ó a layer the elite level lacks
outside of major international competitions ó and the ingredients are there to
create a connection even if the casual fan wouldnít know the difference between
a wolf turn and a Yurchenko full. (Pro tip: wolf turns are spins done on balance
beam or floor exercise and Yurchenko full is a vault.)
What the casual fan does know, however, is that 10.0 still means perfect.
While the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ó the sportís governing
international body ó eliminated the 10.0-system in 2006 in favor of one that
divides the scores into difficulty and execution and combines the two, the 10.0
remains very much a thing in the NCAA. The idea of attaining perfection is one
of the reasons Lee wanted to compete collegiately.
When she received her first 10 for a sublime uneven bars set against LSU in
February, the adrenaline rush as she was mobbed by her teammates was real. So
was the communal joy.
"We all celebrated it together," Lee said.
The performance found its way onto SportCenterís "Top 10," and bounced from
social media platform to social media platform, another way in which the college
gymnasts have been able to spread the sportís footprint in a way that was
unavailable 20 years ago.
LSU sophomore Livvy Dunneís Instagram and TikTok accounts reach a combined
6.6 million followers and serve, in part, as hype machines for the Tigers. The
19-year-old Dunne understands not everyone who comes to an LSU meet is there
because they are focused on the score. She laughs while talking about the young
men at a meet this season who wore t-shirts scrawled with invitations to prom on
Hey, theyíre in the building, right? The bars specialist called helping raise
awareness of her sport a "mission."
"Bringing it to more fans is incredible," said Dunne, who averaged 9.834 on
uneven bars this season for the Tigers, including two scores of 9.90 or better.
"Especially for the future. Hopefully, when Iím not here anymore, the fans will
still be around."
Theyíre certainly there now. LSU led the nation in average attendance
(11,691) for the first time in program history while Auburn sold out every home
meet this season. Michigan drew a record crowd (12,707) when Lee and the Tigers
visited in March. Arkansas moved a home meet to Bud Walton Arena ó where the
Razorbacks basketball team plays ó for the first time when it hosted Auburn.
There have always been strong pockets of support, particularly in places such
as UCLA, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, and Utah, but the growth is no longer
limited to a select few. The decision by athletes like Lee and Carey ó who won
gold on floor in Tokyo ó to join non-traditional powers helps.
So does aggressive on-campus marketing.
On random Thursday nights, 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic gold
medallist and current Arkansas head coach Jordyn Wieber walks along sorority row
and invites young women to meets. She gets far more yesses than she used to.
"One of my major goals was to build the student fan base, at UCLA we had a
huge student section," Wieber said. "I looked at the marketing, how could we
make these meets fun for someone who is 60 years old, a mom and dad, a young
gymnast, and a college student?"
While menís gymnastics at the NCAA level is struggling to survive ó there are
currently only a dozen Division I programs ó women are heading in the opposite
direction. Long Island University came on board in 2020. Clemson is aiming for
2024. Fisk University will become the first historically Black college to field
a womenís gymnastics team when the program launches next season.
Itís a far cry from Fisk coach Corrinne Tarverís career at Georgia in the
late 1980s. The first Black woman to win an NCAA all-around championship
believes she could count the number of women of color in the upper reaches of
her sport on one hand, maybe two.
"Honestly when I first went into college gymnastics, I donít know if there
was enough of us to fill an HBCU team," she said. "There was not a lot."
There is now.
Lee, who is Hmong American, is the third straight American woman of color to
win an Olympic title after Gabby Douglas in 2012 and Simone Biles in 2016. Black
women account for nearly 10% of the scholarship athletes at the NCAA Division I
level, an increase from 7% in 2012.
Fisk offers young gymnasts a chance to be on the ground floor of a sport
growing in nearly every tangible way. The proof is in the stands, in the
ratings, and in the lives of the women who have wrested back control of their
sport and in some ways, their lives.
"(They) are literally changing the sport from the inside out," said two-time
Olympic medallist Kathy Johnson Clarke, now a commentator for ESPN. "Now itís
the way it should be, with the athletes at the center of it guiding our
conversations and leading us to where we all need to be."
Read the current issue of The Asian Reporter in its entirety!
Go to <www.asianreporter.com/completepaper.htm>!