The 2016 NCAA season will kick off in January and run through April. In the U.S., college gymnastics remains the pinnacle of team competition, complete with a revolving door of rivalries. In our annual NCAA preview, which appeared in the November issue, we asked the men's and women's coaches this question: With the strong gymnastics tradition in Texas, why doesn't the University of Texas-Austin have a gymnastics team?
In 2009 IG published "Texas Tumble: Texas is ripe for college gymnastics, but who will force the issue?" At the time, the last two women's Olympic all-around champions, Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin, had both trained in Texas. Texas had the most gymnastics clubs in the U.S., and the second-most competitive gymnasts in the country, after California. Texas also has a robust high school gymnastics program.
Said Oklahoma men's coach Mark Williams in that story: "I believe if UT were to add both men's and women's gymnastics, they would be competitive with the top programs in a very short period of time."
While researching the story, IG learned that a Title IX-related lawsuit in 1993 sought the addition of four women's sports at UT-Austin: soccer, gymnastics, rowing and softball. Women's gymnastics had been a varsity sport at Texas until it was dropped in 1981. From 1993-97, soccer, rowing and softball were added, but not gymnastics.
Women's Athletics Director Chris Plonsky told IG that adding gymnastics is "not in our wheelhouse right now. It's not new. We're very aware of the club situation and the interest." Plonsky also said that women's gymnastics doesn't coincide with the mission of UT athletics, which strives to develop teams whose athletes "have a chance to be the U.S. national team and Olympic team members … and gymnastics is just not that way. It is for an athlete who probably is either younger or [who] trains year round…."
That's no longer true. The majority of men's national team members compete collegiately, and two current women's senior national team members, Kyla Ross and Brenna Dowell, are deferring college in an attempt to make the 2016 Olympics. Ross, a world and Olympic champion, signed with UCLA, and Dowell, a 2015 world team member, competed for Oklahoma last season. Half the 2008 U.S. women's Olympic team competed (or is still competing) collegiately, as well: Alicia Sacramone (Brown), Samantha Peszek (UCLA) and Bridget Sloan is in her senior year at Florida. Sloan, for example, has helped Florida win the NCAA team title the last three years. And three-time world champion Simone Biles had signed with UCLA before turning pro.
If Texas, or any other university in the Lone Star State, really wants to be competitive at the NCAAs, gymnastics would be the ticket. Following are responses from the gymnastics coaches in the IG NCAA Preview.
Stanford men's coach Thom Glielmi:
"It is so odd that no Division I school in Texas has men's or women's gymnastics. I think the athletic directors of the schools in Texas do not comprehend the pool of talent available to them and the instant success they would have if they started a program."
Iowa men's coach J.D. Reive:
"Without scholarships, they could probably win a national championship in its second full generation of recruiting."
Penn State men's coach Randy Jepson:
"They would be a top-six team within four years!"
Oklahoma women's coach K.J. Kindler:
"With the Texas tradition in club gymnastics, it seems like an obvious choice and one that would result in great success at UT."
UCLA women's coach Valorie Kondos Field:
"This is the million-dollar question. Not only is Texas the hotbed for gymnastics in the U.S., but UT could easily get a quality experienced coaching staff. UT's reputation for excellence is extremely well known, respected and coveted.
Nebraska women's coach Dan Kendig:
"Great question. I believe they would be an instant success if they were to add gymnastics to their program."
Alabama women's coach Dana Duckworth:
Alabama has certainly benefitted from Texas' strong gymnastics tradition, and I think any Division I school in the state would have a great opportunity for early success if they could keep some of that talent at home."
By proximity alone, the University of Oklahoma has gained several Texas recruits through the years. Its 2015-16 rosters include five Texas gymnasts on the men's team (out of 13) and seven of 16 on the women's team.
Since gymnastics requires a dedicated training facility, it is less costly to add a sport like rowing to a program that is not compliant with Title IX, which most universities with a football team are not. And the statistics reported to the U.S. Department of Education (ope.ed.gov/athletics) each year reveal how rowing is used in an effort to balance the participation numbers.
The figures reported by UT-Austin from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015, show a full-time undergraduate population of 36,072: 17,167 men, 18,905 women. Yet under "Unduplicated Count of Participants": 301 men, 262 women. Texas listed 77 members on its rowing team, but its current roster includes 45. (See the figures here.) The year before, Texas listed 102 on the rowing team.
"I had several friends who were recruited to row for Texas, although they had never been in a boat, let alone rowed," said one UT student in the IG story.
In the Houston Chronicle story, 1984 Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton said, "I've told them that we'll come up with the money. I'll help you find a head coach. I'll lend my name. You'd have a national champion within five years."
Retton is married to former UT quarterback Shannon Kelley, and they live in Houston with their four daughters. Retton's daughter McKenna Kelley is currently a freshman gymnast at LSU.
Meanwhile, the state of Texas, a fertile garden for gymnastics, remains a vast desert for the sport collegiately.