On June 17, Clemson’s director of athletics Dan Radakovich made an unexpected announcement that changed the landscape of women’s college gymnastics, stating that the school would be adding women’s gymnastics and lacrosse to its slate of sports starting in 2023-24.
“We are thrilled to be able to add these two high-profile women’s sports and expand opportunities for female student-athletes,” Radakovich said. “The combination of women’s lacrosse and gymnastics gives us the ability to compete for ACC and NCAA Division I championships, and we know our community will embrace these new programs.”
Hope Maier, who competed for the school’s club team from 2010 to 2013, has been waiting over a decade for this announcement. “Every year they would do the budget meetings for all the club teams, and we would make our case [for a varsity team] with no luck.”
She calls the decision “a game changer.”
Indeed, Clemson gymnastics will quite literally be a game changer: The program’s inception means that the ACC will begin sponsoring women’s gymnastics, prompting North Carolina, N.C. State and Pittsburgh to leave the EAGL (which was created in 1995 to offer a home for those programs whose primary conference didn’t sponsor gymnastics). This decision means that women’s gymnastics is officially a power five sport. The power five—which includes the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—are considered to be the most prestigious conferences in collegiate sports.
Samantha Snider, head coach at Pittsburgh, “had an inkling” that something big was in the works but was unaware of the final details.
“When the team and I heard the official announcement along with everyone else, we were so excited,” Snider said. “Getting to be part of the inaugural ACC gymnastics season and be a part of that legacy is incredibly exciting. For our athletes to be able to have that ACC logo on their shirts and gear and hopefully down the road win an ACC championship just like other teams and athletes at Pitt is going to be really meaningful.”
Does Snider think other ACC teams will follow Clemson’s lead? “That’s the hope, right?” Snider said. “Having a school like Clemson sponsor a team is great for the overall growth. These other teams will see the benefit of sponsoring gymnastics and hopefully want to join as well.”
Jeff Kallin, Clemson’s associate athletics director of communications and strategic initiatives, echoes Sniders’ sentiments. “We hope that some of those other ACC programs will see the value in what we’re doing. One of the things that’s very attractive about gymnastics is that there is so much fan support out there,” Kallin said. “It’s another opportunity to have an extremely exciting atmosphere and be able to bring families out to events and cheer and be loud and support their team.”
He also agrees with Snider’s assessment that Clemson gymnastics will be “highly competitive very quickly,” emphasizing that the athletic department is going “All In” on ensuring the program’s success. While Kallin notes any constructions or renovations are still very much in the preparation and evaluation stage, he underscores that fans and prospective athletes “can certainly expect a first-class facility and student-athlete experience, just like football and basketball.”
Perhaps the biggest question from fans, media and gymnasts alike has been who will be at the program’s helm. Radakovich’s recent statements that the final hiring decision would likely be made after the 2022 NCAA gymnastics season concludes hasn’t curbed gymternet speculation, with guesses ranging from Kyla Ross—whose longtime boyfriend Justin is the son of Clemson softball head coach John Rittman—to Simone Biles’ coach Cecile Landi.
As far as Kallin is concerned, Clemson is flexible when it comes to potential hires. “If a former Olympian said they wanted to do it, I’m sure we would listen. If a 30-year veteran said they wanted to do it, we would listen. If a first-year coach said they wanted to do it, we would listen,” he said. “Bottom line: They’ve got to bring a wealth of knowledge and be a good fit for Clemson.”
Whoever ends up leading the program, Kallin is confident that there will be no shortage of fans to cheer on the Tigers.
“The response has been very, very strong. We’ve gotten a ton of love from the gymnastics community,” Kallin said, “and even though some of the folks in the area don’t totally understand the sport yet, they know this is a big-time sport and what to expect if you’re going to add a big-time sport at a university like Clemson. We’re looking forward to seeing this thing take off.”
Maier has no doubt that the team’s debut meet will be a success. “The gymnastics fan base is already here in South Carolina. They just haven’t been able to experience it locally. I think it’s a win for everybody, really.”
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Article by Claire Billman
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