What a season! We honestly didn’t think we’d make it all the way through at the start, but we did it without any (major) COVID outbreaks or shutdowns. There were certainly lows, but there were also just as many highs, and we’re going to touch on them all in this week’s roundtable.
If you had to sum up the 2021 season in one word, how would you sum it up?
Katie W: Never-dull
Mary Emma: Wow.
What was the one single highlight of the whole season for you?
Elizabeth: I’m going to go completely obvious, but this was the best, most exciting national final, scratch that, national championships in a long time. It was thrilling from top to bottom, from semifinals to the final. We got new champs, broken records, redemption arcs—everything we could ask for in a tough year.
Claire: Michigan’s first championship, no question. You couldn’t have scripted that meet to be any more dramatic or more exciting. After facing so many challenges and disappointments over the past year, watching the Wolverines secure their first national title was a moment of just pure, unfiltered joy.
Katie W: I’m going to have to agree with Elizabeth on this one. There’s nothing like witnessing a first ever national championship title, especially when there’s only been a few winners in collegiate gymnastics. Michigan did it with stellar postseason gymnastics, a forced two-week midseason COVID break and clinched the title with the final beam routine.
Mary Emma: So hard to pick a favorite because there were so many, but it’s got to be Michigan peaking at the right time to (somewhat) unexpectedly take the title. I’ve been a fan of Michigan’s for years now and have had my heart broken many times when the team just missed out, which makes it even sweeter. I will be replaying Abby Heiskell’s final beam routine again and again for a long time.
Kalley: I can’t not say Michigan (finally) winning the championship, because that was both one of the best meets I’ve seen in a long time, and I am so excited to finally have a new team take the title (and the first in the Big Ten to boot!). The Wolverines have hinted at that level of potential for years, and to see it finally come into fruition like that was just amazing to watch.
Talitha: I have to agree with my fellow editors: Michigan’s victory was the highlight of the season. Not only was it the Wolverines’ first ever national title, but the team earned it, beating Oklahoma’s A-game performance fair and square. I’ve been watching Michigan’s victory sequence on repeat since it won. It was a fantastic ending to this crazy season!
Carolyn: Like Kathy and Bart said, the rise of the underdogs this year was pretty cool. I was really impressed with Iowa’s, Iowa State’s, Minnesota’s, Denver’s, Temple’s, Florida’s, Utah’s, Cal’s and Arkansas’ regular season rises, and I loved seeing new teams thriving in the postseason whether it be winning conference championships or breaking through in the regionals rounds.
What team impressed you the most?
Elizabeth: California. I always knew the talent was there, but I’ve had questions about lineup choices and fulfilling potential for a couple years now. But I’ll gladly admit the Golden Bears surprised me this season. I didn’t see that level of bars dominance coming, and I think it’s only a matter of time, especially with the recruits coming in, until California adds its name to the list of national champions.
Claire: Arizona State. I’ll admit, after watching the team’s preseason intrasquad, I wasn’t expecting much from the Sun Devils this year—certainly not jumping up 12 spots in the rankings. Boy, did they prove me wrong! What a glow up.
Katie W: After watching the December intrasquad from Arizona State, I thought it was going to be a full-on rebuilding year for the team. Evidently, the team proved me wrong, and that freshman class was extremely impressive all season. I can’t wait to see what the team accomplishes next year because the future is bright for this program.
Mary Emma: Aside from the obvious answer of Michigan, I have to go with Temple. When I found out Temple was making the move to the EAGL, I was ecstatic because I knew the competition was just what the Owls needed to take it to the next level. What I didn’t expect was for them to do it that quickly and win the conference title in their very first year, especially after getting off to a rocky start. Temple only loses three routines and gains another large freshman class, so expect even more great things for the program in the years to come.
Kalley: Iowa! The Hawkeyes have always been a good team, but man were they fun to watch this season. I’m excited for a lot of those stars to be returning next season as well and look forward to seeing how they build on this stellar 2021.
Talitha: Cal, Michigan and Arizona State all came to my mind, but I’m going to say North Carolina. After losing two of their best gymnasts and their head coach at the end of last season, things looked dark for the Tar Heels; yet they defied expectations, thanks especially to the fantastic job of interim head coach Marie Denick and sophomore Elizabeth Culton.
Carolyn: I already answered this question above, but out of the teams I mentioned I have to choose Iowa. It finally put its amazing potential to good use and easily had the best social media game of any college gym team this season. When teams do that, it makes it easy and fun to follow them, which is what the collegiate gymnastics scene needs to grow.
What gymnast impressed you the most?
Elizabeth: Abby Heiskell. Man did she peak at the exact perfect time. I was worried her career at Michigan would sort of fizzle, but I’m also glad she proved that completely wrong. Not only did she work her way into the all around due to injuries, she showed she’s capable of 9.9-plus on all four, nailing her Yurchenko one and a half nearly every time out and hitting the national title-clinching beam routine for Michigan.
Claire: Addy De Jesus. She was so close to being great her freshmen and sophomore years but never quite seemed to be able to put the puzzle pieces together. Now, after such a fraught—and public—parting of ways with Nebraska, it’s been wonderful to see her find a home at Iowa State and solidify herself as one of the country’s top vaulters and all arounders.
Katie W: I have a hard time choosing between Abby Heiskell and Megan Skaggs. These two upperclassmen had breakout performances this year after mediocre years beforehand. After the first two meets of the season, Heiskell looked to be in lineup danger, but she persevered and became the national championship clincher on beam and a star in the all around for Michigan. She also never scored below a 9.900 on FX or on her Y1.5 on vault. Megan Skaggs has always been a gorgeous gymnast, but she was never able to consistently hit routines in her first three years, meaning she was usually only left in one or two lineups. However, she completed all around in the majority of her senior meets and came up big when the Gators needed her the most.
Mary Emma: I’ll echo what everyone else has said about Abby Heiskell. She had always been good, but this year she went from good to great. I also want to shout out Katrina Coca. She came off two injured seasons in a row to be a major contributor for Pitt on bars and beam and eventually worked her way up to the all around when the team needed her. She had never competed beam or floor at all prior to this year, and to do that as a sixth year after going through multiple injuries is impressive.
Kalley: Minnesota super-senior Mary Korlin-Downs. She has steadily improved both in execution and confidence every single year of her career, but to see her earn a scholarship for her final season, nearly score a perfect 10 on beam and earn first-team All-America honors at nationals after all of the injuries she has had to deal with was just really special to watch.
Talitha: Arizona State sophomore Hannah Scharf had an incredible season. Last year she showed tons of potential, but this year she blossomed into an outstanding all arounder.
Carolyn: Kennedy Hambrick really made a name for herself this year, and it was really great to watch her have fun with her team and then as an individual at nationals. I must also mention the star Luisa Blanco. I loved watching her nail performances and break records all throughout the season.
We’ll expand on this in a future roundtable, but what one routine sticks out to you the most?
Elizabeth: I think I have to go with Haleigh Bryant’s vault. I know it’s technically not a routine, but I don’t care. It’s phenomenal. It’s the greatest piece of gymnastics in the NCAA (don’t at me) and I can’t wait to watch it for three (or four?) more years.
Claire: Haleigh Bryant’s vault. Aside from being one of the most technically perfect pieces of gymnastics being competed in the NCAA, she somehow managed to make it expressive and artistic. It’s in a class of its own.
Katie W: I genuinely don’t know if there’s a greater piece of gymnastics than Haleigh Bryant’s front pike half on vault in the NCAA right now. Although Audrey Davis’ beautiful floaty piked Jaeger on bars is a close second.
Mary Emma: Haleigh Bryant’s vault is the obvious pick here. It’s so technically perfect, and I had been excited to see it in NCAA for years. I also have to go with Kendall Whitman’s three E-pass floor routine. I don’t know of anyone in NCAA who has ever done that, and it was really cool to see. It’s too bad she didn’t get to compete it enough this year to qualify to regionals.
Kalley: I have to agree with the others here: Bryant’s vault is a jaw-dropping fantastic piece of gymnastics that I cannot wait to watch for the remainder of her career. But if I had to pick a second place finish, it would be Mya Hooten’s floor routine—her full-in is spectacular, and more than that the fun she has with the choreography (especially as a freshman!) is going to be so fantastic to watch as she continues throughout her career.
Talitha: Yes, Haleigh Bryant’s vault is technically perfect. I’m so glad she got a share of the national title.
Carolyn: Although Haleigh Bryant’s vaults were phenomenal, I loved Megan Skaggs’ vaults. They were just *chef’s kiss.*
Are there any teams or gymnasts you felt like didn’t get enough credit in 2021?
Elizabeth: Honestly, it felt like the fanbase was more widespread than ever before. People hopped on the Iowa train, the Cal bandwagon, the EAGL fan bus… I’ll stop, but I do think most of the teams and gymnasts that deserved recognition in 2021 got it. I would like to give shout outs to the oft-forgotten MAC teams, though. They had some record-breaking seasons in their own right, and not much publicity about it.
Claire: West Virginia typically gets overshadowed by the bigger names in the Big 12, but it’s a fantastic program in its own right. The Mountaineers broke the top 30 this season, thanks in no small part to its stellar floor lineup. Keep an eye on this team!
Katie W: Maybe it is because she was not on my radar in preseason, but I was extremely impressed with Bailey Bunn’s freshman year. She often got overlooked being in the same conference as Haleigh Bryant from LSU. Bunn did not miss a single routine all season long. In terms of programs, N.C. State got its press during post-season, but its regular-season contributions should not be overlooked. All arounder Emily Shepard is another key 9.9-plus gymnast on all four events that doesn’t get the same credit as athletes from schools in the top 10.
Mary Emma: I think the EAGL in general doesn’t get enough credit (although there were definitely more people talking about the conference this season than usual). In particular, Towson didn’t get nearly the attention it should have considering the season it had. The team went from a No. 58 ranking back in 2019 up to No. 48 in 2020 and then all the way up to No. 29 in 2021. It’s incredible what the coaches have done with the team in their two years there, and I only expect bigger and better things for the Tigers in 2022.
Kalley: Forever and always the MAC teams, Ball State in particular. That team has been plowing through its own records at the speed of light over the last two years; I’d pay attention to them next season if I were you.
Talitha: Probably freshman Ellie Lazzari of Florida, as her achievements were overshadowed by Haleigh Bryant. Lazzari, however, hit every routine she competed this season, including two clutch beam routines at nationals, and boasts a 9.975 on the event.
Carolyn: I would say either Addy De Jesus or Elizabeth Culton. Both were ranked highly all throughout the season and were often overshadowed by better-known names in the rankings.
What’s one offseason storyline you have your eye on? This could be a coaching change, a senior taking a fifth year, a transfer…
Elizabeth: I’m really interested in what the coaching carousel will look like. Will athletic directors give underperforming leaders a pandemic pass or will they be bold and cut ties where needed? I’m particularly watching the teams that underperformed pretty far below their normal standing (except maybe UCLA). Yes, there was a pandemic, but everyone dealt with the pandemic and some obviously managed it better than others.
Claire: I’m very curious to see how things shake out for Washington; that’s all I’m going to say about that!
Katie W: I think it’ll be really interesting to watch the freshmen/Mykayla Skinner situation. Will all these athletes be making their collegiate debut/return in the fall or will we see some go pro? This can have a significant impact on the depth and the lineups for teams such as Oregon State, Auburn, Utah, Florida and UCLA. Oh…and freshmen transfers could be a thing since many didn’t get the opportunity for an official visit before signing their NLI.
Mary Emma: I’m interested to see which seniors decide to stay for a fifth year. With everyone getting the extra year of eligibility, many have already taken advantage, but how many more will we see? Will we see any of them transfer to a different school?
Kalley: I think it will be interesting to see what happens for the incoming freshman class following the Olympics. Will any unexpectedly defer to pursue 2021 or 2022 World championships? Will any go pro? Will MyKayla Skinner surprise us all and return to Utah? (Can she? Her eligibility is fuzzy to me what with the years she’s missed and the promotion she does on Instagram). It will be interesting to watch.
Talitha: I look forward to finding out if incoming freshmen Shilese Jones and Amelie Morgan, who are committed to Florida and California, respectively but haven’t signed their NLIs, are going to join the NCAA at all. I really hope so; they both have gorgeous lines and would fit greatly into collegiate gymnastics.
Carolyn: Similar to what Mary Emma said, I am looking forward to seeing who takes their COVID fifth year, but to be even more specific, I love seeing why the gymnasts stay or go. Gymnasts staying is always fun because it is usually to start on a new degree at their university or keep doing gymnastics while finishing their bachelor’s, but I love seeing the Instagram posts gymnasts make holding their acceptance letter in hand to their new school for their master’s programs. It’s fantastic to see!
What are you looking forward to most for 2022?
Elizabeth: I’m selfishly looking forward to getting back to photographing meets again. I also already can’t wait for the 2022 postseason. Other than that? I want to see if Michigan can keep it up. It’s barely losing any routines and bringing in even more talent.
Claire: Full fan attendance at meets (fingers crossed). It truly does change the energy of the competition, and—as a fan—even the best TV broadcast can’t beat watching in person.
Katie W: I’m definitely looking forward to some out-of-conference regular season meets. We had a few with the Big 12, Pac-12 and MRGC, but I’m hoping we get back to a normal schedule and get to see the SEC and Big Ten teams compete out of conference as well.
Mary Emma: Honestly, I’m just looking forward to the pandemic (hopefully) being a thing of the past and a normal season with full crowds and no cancelled meets. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to cover some meets this year, but it just didn’t feel the same. Here’s to a more normal 2022!
Kalley: Out of conference regular season meets, assuming it’s possible. That was the one thing I really missed this season; it’s so fun to see two teams face off that you don’t normally get to see in a dual situation.
Talitha: Perhaps this is banal, but I look forward to the collegiate debut of the incredible group of U.S. and international elites, I’ve been waiting for it for so long. In particular, I can’t wait to see Kara Eaker at Utah!
Carolyn: Seeing the seniors who took their fifth year competing again, watching meets with fans in attendance and of course, seeing even more new leotards!
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Article by the editors of College Gym News
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