Oklahoma’s Dynasty and the Man Behind It All

A wall stood to tell a story, decorated with accomplishments of the past 20 years, and in front of it sat the most successful and decorated coach in NCAA history. The proud and self-entitled attitude that one might expect from such a talent never surfaced. Instead, the coach that has dedicated his life to bettering this sport began to tell his story.

Mark Williams’ professional career didn’t begin in gymnastics, but one of the most valuable pieces in his playbook came from his years as an English teacher where he learned to develop lesson plans for each class that he taught. While there are no principals checking in on him now, he’s carried that life lesson with him. Without a doubt, it is one of the keys to his success. He pulled files upon files from his office of the years of notes that he had taken. Single pages slightly warped from years of use and more pristinely kept notebooks held away in the cabinets so tall that he had to stand on the desk to reach them. He can tell you details from training sessions for every practice dating back to 2002. “Any plan is better than no plan, and a good plan is better than a bad plan.” It not only makes for good memories, it makes great champions.

As you walk into the gym, you get the feeling that everything runs like a well-oiled machine. None of the gymnasts are there by force. They’re there because they want to be. Part of the secret to Oklahoma’s success is the immense talent pool from which Williams draws. Successful athletes aren’t just top recruits like Yul Moldauer or Jake Dalton, they are also those with whom Williams can spot potential. For those unable to make the varsity roster, there is still a fully-formed and very active club team, and many of whom, with the right work ethic, can earn a varsity spot. Mike Squires and Michael Reid are two of the great walk-on success stories, both earning NCAA national titles.

As intuitive as Williams is, he admits he never could have predicted Squires’ success. With Williams’ suggestion to focus solely on rings, Squires himself decided to devote as much time to the event as other teammates did to the all around. That work ethic won him three straight national titles.

Another NCAA coach once asked, “Where did they find this guy?” But he wasn’t found, he was made.

Being a head coach isn’t all about championship rings and celebrations. Williams candidly spoke about some of the hardest parts of his job. His consistency in excellence applies not only in the gym but out of it as well. Having to call a parent to tell them he failed their son leaves Williams disheartened each time. He sees it as a personal failure when a kid messes up. There are at least two well-known gymnasts who have had to try and fight their way back onto the national scene after having lost the privilege of being under Williams’ tutelage. But Williams sees the big picture. He refuses to have one bad one spoil the bunch.

Trusting the Process

The gymnasts themselves buy into Williams’ system and have a deep level of trust for how he will prepare them. While Oklahoma is his priority, Williams also wants to cultivate a place of opportunity and that includes helping individuals reach their potential for international success.

Senior Moldauer and former Sooner Allan Bower, two elite U.S. National Team members, are both eying the national all around title this week. With the delay of world team selection this year, being prepared for such a long season is crucial yet also not an easy task. Together, they  firmly said it isn’t about peaking, but about trusting Williams’ process to get them ready no matter when in the season they’re needed.

While elite gymnastics is an individual sport, they bring the college team aspect to the elite competition floor. They are foremost team players, and they’ve vaulted through a rather experiential but brutal season together. In the last year alone, they competed at a combined eight competitions nationally and internationally—not to mention countless NCAA meets and training camps along the way. They couldn’t have gotten through it all without each other. “Just as Steve had Jake, I have Allan,” Moldauer said.

Steven Legendre, who is transitioning into a roll with the Oklahoma City Firefighters, will be missed in the gym. “One of the happiest moments of my life was knowing that Steve would be my coach,” said Moldauer. 

With Legendre’s departure comes yet a new set of changes and new set of challenges, but they certainly won’t be left without a cheerleader. Chris Brooks, 2016 Olympian and two-time world high bar finalist, was named Legendre’s replacement in July. He will be another voice of reason to help them on the days when pain of training takes over longterm goals in the forefront of their minds. While multiple coaching changes provide an adjustment period, they also offer a time of learning.

Williams has hosted coaches from China, Japan, Russia, and Canada, and he does his homework. With each new coach, comes a new opportunity to learn. He instills that mindset in his own athletes as well. “Gymnastics isn’t only about teaching skills, but life skills,” he said.

Playing the Mental Game

In his last year of college at Nebraska, Williams struggled through injuries. After reading Psycho Cybernetics, he began to understand the mental battle of the sport. “Part of my job as a coach is to develop mental strength.”

He spoke of one of greatest gymnasts to come not only out of Norman, but the United States: Jonathan Horton. Before the 2008 Olympic Trials, Horton struggled with his high bar releases. Williams had him water down the routine and built a sense of trust in him that allowed Horton to make the Olympic team. Qualifying fifth into the high bar final, Horton decided he wanted to go for it; all or nothing. With five days between the team final and the high bar final, Horton worked to up his difficulty. He added in a Cassina, which he hadn’t practiced in three years. In his first attempt, he landed about two feet from the bar. He looked up at Williams while still on the ground and said, “I got this.” Though he had never completed his new routine in full before the final, Horton performed the routine of his life that day, winning the silver medal.

Unbeknownst to the Sooner gymnasts, they were about to have to put that mental strength Williams instills in them to the test. Just before practice began for the day, the entire building lost power. Williams chuckled a bit and said it only happens about three times a year. The gymnasts were anxious to get warm up underway, but with the lights off, safety comes first. Though all summer practices are voluntary, there was a sense of restlessness as the majority of the team was there to work towards its next set of goals. The gymnasts lined up from tallest to shortest as Williams addressed them to make a new plan despite the unusual circumstances. As he said, any plan is better than no plan.

Success in the Face of Inequality

While Williams certainly has made Oklahoma a dynasty for men’s collegiate gymnastics, as a whole it’s often overlooked. As Williams saw a problem, he looked to those who had successfully built an audience to apply similar techniques to his own community. Greg Marsden is a well-known name in the women’s gymnastics community. Over 40 years at Utah, he built the largest gymnastics crowd, managing to draw more spectators than some premiere collegiate basketball programs.

Williams spoke admirably of the work Marsden did and similarly has worked to increase Oklahoma’s fanbase by building relationships in the local community. The men’s gymnastics team developed a partnership with Cleveland Elementary School. One gymnast a week goes into the school for a mentorship program, and they even have a “Cleveland Night” during the season where the students get to flash the scores and be a part of the team. Williams sees this outreach as just as much a part of his job as recruiting athletes or creating daily training plans. It doesn’t hurt that his team hasn’t lost a home meet in 10 years.

With so much focus promoting his own team, it’s baffling to see such a stark contrast with the U.S. elite program. Williams feels—and has been outspoken about—the lack of concern and promotion around the men’s national team. “USAG has not done a good job,” he said.

There is a fair amount of inequality surrounding the promotion of the men’s and women’s teams, and people have taken notice. Stick It Media identified 24 tweets about women’s J.O. nationals versus three for the men’s competition. Both Williams and Mike Burns, Minnesota men’s head coach, have been vocal about USA Gymnastics’ failure to stream—or even promote—the qualifying meet to nationals, though the women’s competition was broadcast on live TV.

More importantly, the gymnasts are keenly aware of the unconcealed favoritism USA Gymnastics shows their female counterparts, as demonstrated by the overwhelming coverage given to one discipline and not the other. They mentioned specifically the attention, or lack there of, on social media. You don’t have to look far to see that in the 50 most recent posts on Instagram, as of Aug. 8, USA Gymnastics highlighted women’s artistic in 34 posts yet only five for the men, with an additional two posts having a combination of the two.

With a lack of coverage also seems to come a lack of communication from the top. When asked about how USA Gymnastics planned to protect Moldauer if he were to make this year’s world team, Williams noted is wasn’t even on his radar. Qatar does not legally recognize bi-racial adoption. In 2014, the  New York Times detailed a story in which a family was jailed in a bi-racial adoption case.

With a heaviness in his voice, Williams advocated for those who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community—another thing Qatar deems illegal—and those who have been adopted. “No human should be given priority by race, status, or finances,” he said. In a country where not all are considered equal, the FIG has unwittingly given certain athletes a priority of safety and health during the upcoming competition in Doha.

A Focus on the Present—for Now

As he works to create a more fair and educated world, Williams also recognizes he has a job here and now in his gym. The dilemma between creating what you have now while also looking to the future is a hard choice, but Williams says he always errs on the side of the present. And presently, he has a gym full of athletes waiting to learn.

As the lights came back on, he stood up from his desk, walked out to the gym and began coaching the next generation. The guys are already beginning to train, not wasting even a second after the delay the power outage imposed. Levi Anderson, choosing to forgo competing at nationals to ensure he’s able to help the team in 2019, patiently worked on developing his ring strength. Peter Daggett worked tirelessly on high bar to master German giants. Though no longer able to compete in the all around, he is determined to help his team wherever possible. Across the gym, Moldauer trained his Tak half to Kolman. He caught it and hopped off the bar. “100 percent today, coach,” he said, grinning. Simultaneously, Bower performed full-twisting double layouts off rings.

With 10 gymnasts heading into nationals next week, it is safe to say Williams stays true to his word when he says he doesn’t settle for anything less than each gymnast’s best.

As the gymnasts themselves look to achieve personal records at the championships, they are likely more so looking to break NCAA records together as a team in 2019. Though the Sooners are eyeing a fifth straight national title, Williams is equally as concerned with producing and developing quality men who will go on to be leaders in their communities—whether gymnastics is a part of that or not. That’s the reason to put your child in gymnastics, and that’s the reason NCAA gymnastics matters.

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Article by Kensley Behel, all photos courtesy of Sooner Sports

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