It seems as though every year, there’s another college gymnastics team facing elimination. Just last year, Wilson College eliminated their team and Gustavus Adolphus was threatened. In 2011, Rhode Island College’s women’s and Cal Berkley’s men’s teams faced extinction, but were later saved by community outrage. In 2009, MIT’s men’s and women’s teams were eliminated. In 2008, URI announced their gymnastics team’s elimination. Now, Temple University has announced their decision to cut men’s gymnastics. And these schools are just a few of the many programs that no longer exist or risked no longer existing. Gymnastics is almost always one of the first sports on the chopping block when colleges and universities feel that budget cuts and other restrictions need to be made, but why? Gymnastics is growing in popularity but the opportunities for gymnasts to compete collegiately are shrinking year after year. Despite the dominance of USA gymnastics in the world with dozens of Olympic and World Championship medals from the past few years and the exponential growth of athletes participating in the sport, those who hold the power to make decisions in higher education seem convinced that gymnastics is a dying sport.
While it may be obvious to those involved with gymnastics that the sport isn’t dying, it may not be so obvious to those who don’t understand it. And let’s face it: gymnastics is not an easy sport to understand. Its concepts, skills, and scoring are difficult to grasp and comprehend, especially if one has never been involved in the sport in any capacity. Most people do not know the difference between a double back and a double full and couldn’t even pronounce Yurchenko or Tsukahara, let alone understand and differentiate between the two. They don’t get it, and I can’t really blame them. What I can find fault in is the inability to even try to understand it. Most college gymnastics programs are low on the totem pole of athletic priorities. They are poorly marketed, poorly funded, and set on the back burner in favor of the more “popular” sports. As a result, they don’t bring enough revenue and become candidates for elimination. But if you don’t water your plants and give them enough sunlight, how can you ever expect them to grow and blossom?
Saving collegiate programs is a cause I’m passionate about because I’ve lived it. In 2011, I was a junior at Rhode Island College and a captain of the gymnastics team when the school announced its plans to eliminate gymnastics at RIC, effective the 2011-2012 academic year (which would have been my senior year). Let me first preface my story with saying that I was never a naturally gifted gymnast. In all my years, I’ve encountered dozens of gymnasts whose natural ability for the sport astounds me, but I was never “that” kid. The sport didn’t come easy to me, and, like many gymnasts, my body was working against me via stress fractures in my back and other injuries. But what I didn’t have in natural talent, I made up for in passion and drive for the sport. I desperately wanted to compete in college, and I found a home in Division III gymnastics. Unlike Division I or II, Division III does not give athletic scholarships. I would have never made a Division I or II team, but after looking at several Division III programs, I decided on Rhode Island College due to its relatively close proximity to my home state of New Hampshire, its situation in the city of Providence, and its reasonable cost and wide array of majors. I’ll admit, my first two years at RIC were tumultuous. There was almost a revolving door of coaches and gymnasts, but by my junior year, I felt as though our program was gaining ground and stability. Our team had a lot of heart, passion, and love for the sport and for each other. We had several promising recruits lined up for the next season and things were looking up. And then, tragedy.
March 30th, 2011 was a day that I will never forget. My team was called into a meeting with the Athletic Director and we were told, “The good news is that we will be adding two more women’s sports to RIC. The bad news is that we are cutting gymnastics” as if the addition of two more sports that I had no interest in would somehow soften the blow. “Devastation” does not even begin to cover it. I had worked my entire life and had overcome so much all to have it ripped away just before my senior year. My teammates were looking to me as their captain for answers and I had none. We were all blindsided, hurt, and betrayed by the decision. I can remember walking into the athletic training room and sobbing in front of our dumbfounded and stunned trainers and fellow athletes, who shared in our shock and outrage. After the initial shock wore off, I started thinking, “well, that’s that. I guess we’ll just have to start a club team next year, right?” Wrong. Student Community Government had already finalized their budgets for the following academic year, so funding a club team would have been next to impossible. That’s when my roommate and fellow captain, Angela, had an idea. She said, “why don’t we try to save it? What do we have left to lose?” and she was right.
So the next morning, I created the petition. Within 11 hours of its creation, it had over 1,000 signatures. That’s when we knew that we had a chance and that we were onto something big. Then I wrote to every single Division III coach in the country, and the coaches of all the Division I and II teams we regularly competed against and asked them to help us, and the response was overwhelming. Many of those coaches went out of their way to send letters and emails in support of our cause. In addition to the online petition, we sent written forms of it around campus. We went around the dining halls, in the quad, in the dorms, everywhere. It was passed around classrooms, lecture halls, and sorority meetings. Many of our fellow students were outraged that the school would eliminate a sports team. But I knew that I needed more than signatures to reverse the college’s decision.
So I started researching. I read up on NCAA rules and regulations and educated myself about Title IX. I discovered that my school was guilty of some ethical violations and discrimination that were unacceptable under Title IX. Due to the excellent reputation and subsequent popularity of the Nursing and Education programs, at the time I was a student, RIC was approximately 66% female. Title IX states that athletic enrollments should be a reflection of the student population. It wasn’t. My calculations revealed that though RIC’s student population was 2/3 female, their athletic enrollment was over 50% male. Despite the fact that gymnastics was being cut and two more women’s sports (swimming and golf) would be added, the school would only be gaining one sport. Even if the new sports produced the amount of athletes they said it would produce (spoiler alert: they didn’t), that was not enough to tip the scales. Ethically, we as a team had always felt that we had been treated unfairly. The athletic department refused to send gymnasts to Division III Nationals when they qualified, they refused to replace our matting and equipment to comply with NCAA regulations, and we had to travel in vans to our away meets that were often over six hours away while other sports teams got coach buses to travel a fraction of that. We were underfunded, under appreciated, and underrepresented. It wasn’t due to lack of coaching or talent that the program wasn’t succeeding. It was because the athletic department didn’t care enough to equip it with the tools to help it succeed, and then they turned around and cut it for not being “successful”.
After documenting all of this, I decided to research gymnastics teams that had been cut but were later saved because I felt that precedence could be an important card to play. I found that Brown University, West Chester University, and Southeast Missouri had all had their programs cut and reinstated. But the two cases that really struck me were those of Brown, our Providence neighbors, and West Chester, a team we regularly competed against. Both of these teams took their cases to court and won. Reading their legal cases was like looking into a mirror and into my own situation at RIC. The similarities were shocking.
Title IX and the cases of Brown, West Chester, and SEMO were my heavy hitters. But I also had statistics showing that gymnastics was on the rise, statistics comparing it to swimming and golf, letters, testimonials from the petition, and written essays by my teammates on why gymnastics is important to them and why they ultimately chose RIC. Angela and I compiled all of this into a binder and set up meetings with the vice president of the college, who oversaw athletics. There were three meetings in total. During the first two, we presented our case. I knew that arguing for my program to remain indefinitely would be tough, so I suggested a compromise: a two-year trial period where we could prove that gymnastics was a worthy asset to Rhode Island College. All I wanted was a chance. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, angry calls and emails were inundating the administration, the petition was growing, and our cause could be seen in the local papers and on dozens of popular gymnastics websites and blogs.
It was the third meeting where we would hear the final verdict. I can still remember the butterflies, the heartbeat resounding in my chest, the sweaty palms and shaking hands, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. But despite the odds, despite the dozens of programs who had been cut before us, and despite all those who had doubted, discredited, and dismissed us, our request was granted. Rhode Island College Gymnastics would live to see another two years. The next season was the best of my career and the best season for RIC in years. I was named ECAC gymnast of the week once, scored several personal bests, and qualified to Division III Nationals on floor (yes, they actually sent me). Our coach was named ECAC Coach of the Year. The two-year trial period that I fought for is up, and 5 National Qualifiers, 4 Academic All-Americans, 1 Coach of the Year, and 1 Rookie of the Year later, Rhode Island College Gymnastics remains alive today.
To this day, I still can’t believe that we did it. But there are still days where I fear for the indefinite survival of the program. More so, I fear for the survival of college gymnastics as a whole. I want to one day live in a world where the sport I have devoted my entire life to is not constantly fighting for survival in the NCAA. I want to one day live in a world where gymnastics is as dutifully marketed and appreciated as basketball or football. I want to one day live in a world where administrators will actually make an effort to understand and appreciate gymnastics. I want to one day live in a world where we can go just one season without seeing another team’s petition to be saved from elimination. I want to one day live in a world where gymnastics athletes can be treated with fairness, equality, respect and with the same reverence that is given to athletes of more “popular” sports.
Cutting a sport, regardless of whether it’s gymnastics or football, or whether it’s a men’s sport or a women’s sport, is never, I repeat, never the answer. It is a cop-out. Denying athletes the right to participate in a sport they have worked tirelessly to succeed in and to represent their school with dignity and pride in is the biggest and most reprehensible disservice a college administration can do. Knowing how incredible and how valuable my experience as a college gymnast was, I want future gymnasts to have the opportunity to share in that same experience. I want there to be options available for gymnasts who want to continue competing after high school. If the elimination of programs to be a popular trend, that will not happen.
I am living, breathing proof that with a little grit and determination, saving a program is possible. But I was not alone in the battle. I could not have succeeded in doing what I did without the help of social media and the thousands of members of the gymnastics community who took a little time out of their day to support us, be it by signing a petition, making a phone call, writing a letter or email, or sharing our cause with their contacts. We cannot continue to sit idly as gymnastics programs disappear one by one. The situation for men’s gymnastics programs is especially dire, and right now, it is Temple who needs our help. Sign their petition, send a letter to their administration, and get on the phone and start calling. As for the other programs around the country, do your part in supporting your local college gymnastics team. Send a donation, attend a meet, and follow them on social media. The more the community remains involved, the more of a chance we have in keeping NCAA gymnastics alive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah was a gymnast for 16 years, throughout which she competed at the state, regional, and national level. She went on to compete Division III collegiate gymnastics for Rhode Island College, where she was a two-year team captain, ECAC gymnast of the week, national qualifier on floor exercise, and Academic All-American, as well as being one of four senior athletes chosen as a Senior Athlete of Distinction at RIC’s 2012 Commencement. She graduated cum laude with a B.A. in English. Sarah continues her passion for gymnastics as a coach at Spectrum Gymnastics Academy in Londonderry, NH where she also runs the gym’s blog. She also is a level 9 rated judge and hopes to earn her level 10 rating next season.
Follow her on twitter: @GymCoachSarah