Seattle Pacific Gymnasts Fight for Discontinued Program

We got on the Zoom call and were told that “effective immediately” SPU gymnastics would cease to exist… At that point, I was sobbing. I was supposed to be getting news that I could return to the gym and train, and now they were forcing me into retirement. 

As I’m sitting there unable to even look at my teammates’ or coaches’ faces, I received an email saying I was released from the program and I could enter the NCAA transfer portal if I wanted to. I am still sobbing, the athletic director is still talking and I have paperwork already in front of me saying I’m being released from the program. 

Then my mom is calling me. We haven’t even gotten off the Zoom call yet, and my mom has gotten an email saying SPU gymnastics is discontinued. I didn’t even have the chance to tell my own mother. She knew before I had even processed that my gymnastics career may have ended.

Like hundreds of collegiate gymnasts, Seattle Pacific’s Kylie Reese’s junior year came to an abrupt and unsatisfying close in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Falcons were having one of their best seasons in years under the leadership of first year head coach Sarah Jean Marshall, and their goal of qualifying as a team to USAG nationals seemed tantalizingly within reach. “We were very sad that our season was cut short,” said Reese. “But we knew we would come back with a vengeance next year.” 

Regardless of the virus’s ultimate effect on the 2021 collegiate gymnastics season, Seattle Pacific will not have that chance.

On the morning of June 15, the team and coaching staff received an email from Seattle Pacific’s athletic director Jackson Stava with the subject line, “Urgent Gymnastics Meeting – TODAY on Zoom.” Two weeks prior, Reese had sat in on a meeting with her school’s compliance director regarding plans for the team to resume training July 1; she assumed this meeting would formalize that plan. 

Instead, Stava announced that the program had been terminated, effective immediately. 

Recent graduate Zahra Lawal medically retired from competition in 2019 and served as the team’s manager in 2020. Like Reese, she was wholly unprepared for what the Zoom meeting had in store. “Last year when we were going through the process of hiring a new head coach, [we] were worried that the program was in jeopardy. In several of our meetings with [Stava], we made sure to ask him if our program was going to be cut,” Lawal said. “Jackson assured us that our program was not going anywhere.”  

According to Stava, the conversation to dissolve the program began in earnest in the late winter 2019/early spring 2020 academic quarter. The final step was a review of the senior leadership’s decision by the board of trustees on May 21 of this year, nearly a month before either the coaching staff or gymnastics team were informed. For Reese and Lawal, this begs the question: Why were they kept in the dark? 

“I have already registered for the fall quarter at SPU. I don’t have time to transfer,” Reese said. “Why does [Seattle Pacific] find it acceptable to make such a life-altering decision for so many people and fail to even warn them that their program may get cut? All NCAA institutions need to include their athletes and coaches in these discussions, or at the bare minimum give them a warning that their program is in jeopardy.”   

Though the university has promised that, “scholarships for current gymnastics student-athletes—including grants awarded to incoming students beginning in fall 2020—will be honored for the four years of their SPU undergraduate tenures,” and will allow the gymnasts to transfer immediately without penalty, Lawal doesn’t believe these concessions are enough. 

“If they had offered an official final season like UIC, the returning gymnasts and incoming freshmen would have had the opportunity to fight for this program. And if the fight was not enough, then at least my teammates would have one last season,” she said. It would also allow non-seniors more time to look at transfers and decide on their future in the sport and academically, and for the coaches to look for new jobs. “Being offered an official final season would have given everyone a little bit of closure.”

The haste with which the program has been cut is all the more baffling because the impetus behind it is unclear. 

The university’s official release states that, “The decision to discontinue gymnastics came following an extensive review of the state of that sport in the NCAA Division II structure. Although the assessment and decision began prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and rests on its own merit, the adverse effects of the pandemic on the program’s funding model expedited this decision.”  

However, Reese and Lawal suspect that ultimately the university’s timing and execution has little to do with either finances or the pandemic. (It’s worth noting that four incoming recruits were signed between December 2019 and April of this year.)

“The university is committed to the longterm success and strengthening of the [Great Northwest Athletic Conference], and certainly alignment of athletic programs was a central part of this conversation and decision,” Stava said. “[While there are no current plans to either reinstate the gymnastics team or add new athletic teams] GNAC alignment will be critical to the implementation of any future athletic programs.”

All of SPU’s six other sports compete in the GNAC, with rowing being added to the conference docket in 2019, while gymnastics falls under the Mountain pacific Sports Federation alongside Division I programs Air Force, Alaska, Sacramento State, San Jose State and UC Davis.

“They want us to be something we can’t,” Reese said. “They want us to be GNAC, but we are proud to be a part of MPSF—our head coach even won 2020 MPSF Coach of the Year. I am saddened and hurt that they don’t see the value we bring to this institution or the MPSF.”

Whatever the obstacles, Lawal is adamant that she and her Falcon family are not done fighting for the program’s reinstatement. “The gymnastics community is so strong and something one should never mess with,” she said. “I think [Stava and Seattle Pacific’s president Dan Martin] are starting to realize that as well.”

Reese couldn’t agree more. “They picked the wrong sport to mess with. I know the entire gymnastics community will continue to fight this decision with us,” she said. “SPU gymnastics fought for me, and now it is my turn to fight for them.”

How Can Fans Help? 

Petition to Save SPU Gymnastics

Utilize #savespugymnastics on social media 

Email concerns to the following officials:

Seattle Pacific Gymnasts’ Statements

Emily Anderson ‘22 
Darian Burns ‘20
Kayla Chan ‘22
Simone Dumas-Guzman ‘23
Jadacie Durst ‘21 
Absa Fall ‘24
Silje Hildebrand ‘24
Emma Lamping ‘22
Zahra Lawal ‘20
Ciello Magsanide ‘22
Miyuki Matsune ‘20
Alix Pierce ‘23
Kylie Reese ‘21
Shelbi Spivey ‘21
Kayli Tran ‘22
Ashtyn Winter ‘23
Lena Wirth ‘20
Makenna Zimmerman ‘21

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Article by Claire Billman 

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