ST. LOUIS—In what might be the college gymnastics upset of the decade, the UCLA women’s team won the 2018 NCAA title, besting Super Six finalists Utah, Nebraska, Florida, LSU, and Oklahoma. UCLA’s victory came down to its last routine on its very last apparatus, a stellar performance on balance beam by senior Peng-Peng Lee. This year’s championship had been widely considered Oklahoma’s to lose, anchored as they were by superstar sophomore (and all-around champion) Maggie Nichols and a roster that posted megascores all year (although, ahem, more on that in a second). And yet lose they did—by less than four-hundredths of a point, with UCLA winning by the score of 198.075 to 198.0375. To get a sense of the proportion here, recall that the U.S. women beat Russia for team gold at the 2016 Olympics by 8.209 points—a margin 219 times larger.
That the team on top was in blue instead of red was, indeed, a shock, so much so that the normally ebullient Lee, who scored perfect 10s on both bars and beam, had “zero words” to describe how she felt. However, that the margin of victory was less than .05—which happens to be the smallest possible deduction a gymnast can receive—was not surprising in the least.
There are three constants in college gymnastics: elaborate hair, university-logo face crystals, and a scoring system that is abjectly bonkers. If you’ve watched the sport in the Olympics, you’ll note that the scoring system for elite gymnasts, with its open-ended mess of 14-point-whatevers, is bonkers in the exact opposite way. While the elite Code of Points prizes difficulty over “perfection”—and thus incentivizes the development of floor routines with 45 tumbling passes—college gymnastics has retained the legendary 10. Actually, saying the NCAA has retained the 10 is like saying I have retained a slight propensity to eat my feelings since the 2016 presidential election.
In college gymnastics, grade inflation is rampant. While elites seem to be deducted out the wazoo for invisible transgressions—the legendary U.S. squad at the 2016 Olympic trials regularly scored in the 9.2s in execution!—top NCAA athletes all score impossibly high. UCLA’s gymnasts performed 24 routines during the team competition; a mere two of them scored below 9.8. I just spent two days viewing these young women live, from a close enough distance that I may have lasting corneal damage from the Swarovskis on their leotards, and yet I am no closer to understanding how we can possibly live in a world in which a 9.8 can be a team’s 22nd-best score.
In general, it would seem like the NCAA’s more straightforward rules—three tumbling passes on floor! Two releases on bars! The 10!—would be a relief. And for the most part, they are, even for a curmudgeon like myself. Very little warms my hardened heart like the jubilation of an entire team when a college 10 is flashed. Check, for example, the reaction of the Bruins earlier this season, at one of junior (and 2018 NCAA floor co-champion) Katelyn Ohashi’s 10s:
Ohashi’s dazzling Michael Jackson–themed exercise—which earned a 9.9625 here at nationals, tying Ohashi with Nichols for the title—is currently my favorite routine in all of gymnastics. (Those billion decimal points, by the way, are the result of the six-judge panel; the high and low scores get tossed and the middle four are averaged.) Furthermore, Ohashi—who competes with her hair half-down and bangs in her face, the gymnastics equivalent of a punk-rock safety pin stuck through your cheek—is my favorite gymnast competing today, period.
That said, this perfect 10 routine, I am sorry to say, was not completely perfect. (Neither, of course, was Nadia Comaneci’s legendary first-ever perfect score in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, as Dvora Meyers deftly points out in The End of the Perfect 10, her definitive guide to gymnastics scoring.) Ohashi’s feet flex in her second tumbling pass (that’s a .05 deduction), and in her second switch leap her legs do not quite hit 180 degrees (another .05 deduction). This routine is, as much as I adore it, probably a 9.9. But in NCAA gymnastics, just as in the classrooms of NCAA institutions, an A- is the equivalent of a C-. Getting a 9.9 for that routine would’ve been considered a grievous insult.
Because routines with major breaks in them pull 9.7s and an exercise with a straight-up face plant can still earn a 9.3, there’s nothing to do with a hit routine but give it the 10, even if it has small errors. The scoring at the Super Six, for what it’s worth, was a bit tighter than in the regular season, either because of the absence of home-crowd advantage or (more likely from my vantage point) because each six-judge panel had at least one (and usually two) sticklers who actually did care about the errant flexed foot, hence Ohashi’s “disappointing” 9.9625.
Since the meet ended, I’ve watched both of Peng-Peng Lee’s title-clinching 10s on replay.
While a panel of heartless elite judges might fault her on beam for, say, not quite piking her piked salto enough, or failing to place her lifted leg in the exact passé position during her double pirouette, there was not a college deduction to be found in those sets. Those 10s were the real deal, but it boggles my mind that strikingly lesser routines earned 9.9s. College gymnastics is wildly entertaining, but it would be fairer and more comprehensible if the kingdom were not always gained and lost on a fraction of a tenth.
Many decades ago, in the dark ages of the late 1980s when certain people named me were still competing, it was the elite meets that had more dimes than Times Square pay phones. In the intervening years, elite judging sure has tightened up, and some people named me might argue that tightening has gone beyond all logic and reason. One wonders if the same thing might happen soon in the NCAAs, as the popularity of the sport continues to grow, and enough people start to notice that some perfect scores are, well, perfecter than others.