On Jan. 14, the University of Arkansas women’s gymnastics team—the Gymbacks, as they are colloquially known—took us to church. Or, at any rate, they competed on hallowed ground, in the 19,000-seat basketball venue named after an Arkansan saint, James Lawrence “Bud” Walton, whom you may recognize from his family’s humble chain of mom and pop department stores. Arkansas’ usual gymnastics competition space, Barnhill Arena, was deemed insufficient to hold the spectators for the Gymbacks’ matchup against Auburn. And lo, the deemers were correct, as the meet—a true squeaker that the Tigers won by half a tenth of a point—did beget a rapturous crowd of more than 10,000 disease vectors, I mean fans. (I live in Oregon, where we still acknowledge there’s a pandemic on; it’s weird, I know.)
Such impressive attendance was due in large part to the three Olympic gold medalists present—two, Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross, on Arkansas’ coaching staff, and none other than Tokyo all-around champion Suni Lee in her NCAA debut for Auburn. Slowly recovering from her punishing elite career and a fall term commuting to Dancing With the Stars, Lee competed on floor, beam, and her signature event uneven bars, scoring two excellent 9.875s and a near-perfect 9.95, respectively.
Lee’s anticipated debut marks the first time in gymnastics history that an Olympic all-around gold medalist has gone on to compete in college. While the collegiate ranks have long boasted a plethora of team and individual event medalists—not to mention scores of former elites who didn’t make a nearly impossible Olympic cut of four to six athletes—the U.S.’s juggernaut list of all-around winners (Lee’s victory marked the fifth consecutive time “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during the medal ceremony) has without fail chosen to go professional and forfeit NCAA eligibility. This year, however, Lee didn’t have to make that choice. (More on that in a second.)
It’s not just Lee raising Auburn’s profile. Her West Coast contemporary, Tokyo floor exercise champion Jade Carey, also recently scorched out of the gate at Oregon State with a 39.65 all-around score in her first meet and a whopping 39.8 in her second (that’s out of 40, people) and absolutely housed the hardest tumbling pass in college gymnastics, a double-twisting double-back somersault, executed as stratospherically high as I have ever seen it on varsity territory:
This is not a blip. It’s part of a larger, longer-term trend. We are witnessing the final leveling-up of NCAA gymnastics from a niche sport (a “gimmick,” some might say) to a regular fan sport, in real time. (Turns out the University of Utah, which is famous for treating gymnastics with the fervor of football—woe unto any journalist seated under the Utes’ student section at a National Championship—has been right all along.) Case in point? A regular-season meet with zero former American medalists present, the University of Florida’s Jan. 16 home opener against Alabama, ran not on its usual SEC network, not on ESPN2 or Plus, or even flagship ESPN. That regular-season college meet ran on ABC, network television, a medium that still persists almost exclusively for the dissemination of live sports to sports fans, of which there are now enough in gymnastics to justify a broadcast. Even up against the NFL on CBS and Fox, the Florida-Alabama meet had a record-breaking viewership of 624,000, the ESPN expanded universe’s second-most-watched college gymnastics telecast of all time.
Need more evidence? On Jan. 17’s SportsCenter, the Gators’ sublimely talented senior Trinity Thomas was showcased belting out a perfect score on floor exercise as the No. 1 “Play of the Day.” The SportsCenter announcers don’t even know what a piked double-back somersault is called—and they don’t have to, because the audience recognizes flippy-thing high and good. Do you think Thomas looks amazing?
Congratulations, you are now a gymnastics fan, too.
It may be tempting to attribute the continuing rise of college gym’s popularity solely to the long-awaited name-image-likeness, or NIL, rule change that went into effect in July 2021, which has allowed NCAA athletes to accept sponsorship compensation. After all, that’s the only reason Lee (and possibly Carey) came anywhere near college after Tokyo; as recently as 2016, Lee, like her four recent consecutive American predecessors, would likely have forfeited her NCAA eligibility the second she stepped off the gold medal podium.
And indeed, the NCAA does not want for 2020 U.S. Olympians and near-Olympians making the same choice—Grace McCallum and Kara Eaker now compete for Utah; Jordan Chiles for UCLA; Riley McCusker, Leanne Wong, and Morgan Hurd for Florida—truly an embarrassment of gymnastic riches. However, as the Florida-Alabama meet shows, it’s not just professionals and Olympians who are driving this spike in popularity among regular people.
Credit for NCAA gymnastics’ rightful place in the national spotlight must also be shared with the UCLA program’s savvy marketing apparatus. Although the Bruins got off to a rocky start this season (they seem to have righted themselves) due in part to a recent COVID outbreak, it’s hard to envision a world as aware of college gym as it is now without the made-for-virality music and choreography choices of the team’s former head coach Valorie Kondos Field (known to all by her ballet-mistress name Miss Val). It was Field who engineered many of the viral routines of the past decade performed by now-legendary Bruins Angi Cipra, Sophina DeJesus, and, most of all, Katelyn Ohashi. And it is Field’s successor in floor choreography, BJ Das, who has continued that viral routine legacy with statement-making exercises by Nia Dennis and Margzetta Frazier. At this point, the mechanism is so well oiled that it’s not a question of if a UCLA routine will go viral this year, but which one. (My money is on either a Frazier repeat if she recovers from her current injury or a dark horse possibility, freshman Emma Malabuyo’s, if only because her routine includes the Carlton.*)
The final reason college gymnastics is finally getting its due is related to the reason that the UCLA floor lineup gets so much attention: The competitors look like they are having a genuinely great time. Unlike in elite gymnastics—where gymnasts on the national team generally train at different clubs and almost always have a shellshocked look about them—college athletes emphasize team results rather than individual honors, and they’re constantly hyping one another up with extreme displays of unfettered enthusiasm. The brand that college gymnastics puts forward, ever more successfully, is one of empowerment and joy, and in large part this is sincere. And so, it’s easier to enjoy and admire a sport that has (only slightly less difficult versions of) the same high-flying daredevil theatrics as Olympic-level gymnastics, but way more often than once every four years, and with more engaging choreography and the appearance of less abject misery.
(Update, Jan. 27, 2022, 12:30 p.m.: Shortly after this piece closed for publication, an explosive scandal involving a now-former UCLA athlete’s alleged racist remarks (and counteraccusations of bullying) was substantiated in the Los Angeles Times after several weeks of vigorous online speculation. The internet’s memory is short, so it is likely a viral routine by a smiling gymnast will still emerge later this season from the Bruin ranks—but it is worth remembering that college gymnastics’ well-cultivated brand of empowerment and joy may not always be what it appears.)
To wit, non-gymnerds understandably cannot tell the difference between the level of difficulty in Olympic flippy-spinny-things and the level of difficulty in NCAA flippy-spinny-things. I could tell you about the difference in the international elite Code of Points and the college Code of Points, but if you don’t know already, you probably don’t care much. And that’s because you probably just like watching gymnastics, full stop, because gymnastics is fun to watch—and post-UCLA, post-NIL, maybe NCAA gymnastics is most fun of all.
So what great responsibility comes with this newfound power? NCAA gymnastics blowing up in popularity is fantastic for the sport, but it is still gymnastics, and gymnastics is, by and large, still a broken sport whose brokenness doesn’t stop the moment a product of the elite system departs for the halls of academe. We can’t allow virality and television ubiquity to whitewash the serious problems that lurk under the surface of this seeming undergraduate Shangri-La, from racist harassment to abusive coaching. These are issues that occupy large amounts of space in the superfan-only “gymternet,” but if the sport is breaking out of that space, then the resolution of its issues must as well.
Because now that the pro-to-college pipeline has been established, there’s no reassembling the proverbial block of chalk once it’s been crumbled. The years ahead of the 2024 Olympics will produce superstars who, #sponcon in tow, will eventually don the leotards of Florida, Oklahoma, current No. 1–ranked Michigan, Auburn, Oregon State, UCLA, or (yes) Arkansas. And those superstars will come from all over the world—after all, it’s not just Americans in the NCAA. The perfect 10s will continue to ring up and the routines will continue to go viral, and more and more families will gather around what improbably is still a live-broadcasting television, not to watch the game but to watch the meet. Yes, college gymnastics is a “real” sport worthy of playing out on hallowed ground. Let’s hope everyone involved rises to the moment they’ve earned.
Correction, Jan. 26, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Carlton.