Kentucky gymnast before mounting the beam

CGN Roundtable: Looking Back at Our 2021 Content

We produced a lot of great content over the course of the 2021 season, and we want to make sure our favorite pieces get their due. So for this week’s roundtable, we’ll be looking back at our favorite features and sharing a little behind-the-scenes look at any fun anecdotes from working on them.

What was your favorite feature we produced in 2021? What do you want to see more of? Let us know in the comments or on social media!

We’ll start with a little internal reflection. What was your favorite article that you wrote this season?

Katie W. I have a toss-up between two articles, but my feature on Kentucky would probably take the win. I thought the interviews brought out important insights to the team that I was able to include in my feature piece. Additionally, I was pleased with my lead for the article even though it was a different route than I normally take. The feature I wrote on Mayson Bentley would be a close second because I love being able to tell an underdog story. 

Emily M: Rebecca and I had the privilege of writing the national final post-meet feature. We’ve been working together here for four years now, so it was really special to get to tag-team with her on the piece. Getting to interview Bev Plocki, who I’ve spoken with a handful of times over the years as the Big Ten editor, after such an emotional and historic win, was an all-time highlight. 

Katherine: I really liked the feature I wrote about Towson. Emerson Hurst and Camille Vitoff were great interview subjects with no shortage of things to say, and it was fun to try and encapsulate the genuine passion they felt for their program. 

Claire: I’m extremely proud of my interview with Iowa’s Larissa Libby regarding the issues surrounding the current postseason format. She is so passionate about affecting positive change in the sport, and I’m so grateful that we were able to amplify her voice. 

Talitha: All my features are important to me, but I would say that my piece on California was my favorite. The team had such kind words for each other, they conveyed a very strong passion for the sport and for their program; the mental game they described was fascinating. It was touching. They also hyped up the article after it was published, which was heartwarming, as I always try to do my interviewees and their stories justice.

Mary Emma: It’s hard to choose, but I think the feature I wrote about Elizabeth Culton and her breakout season is my favorite. She had such a great year, and she’s one of many gymnasts who are helping North Carolina to reach its potential after a rough few years. 

How about your favorite feature written by another editor?

Katie W. I genuinely don’t think I could pick a favorite because my other editors have produced outstanding work all season long. One of my favorite pieces was Talitha’s article on Michigan’s team depth. The article has such a great variety of quotes and offered great detail on the team’s historic 2021 season. 

Emily M: I agree with Katie that Talitha’s in-depth look at Michigan is excellent! I also enjoyed Mary Emma’s piece on N.C. State after the regionals selection fiasco. It was great to get that inside perspective on something all of us outside of the situation were also talking about.

Claire: Kalley’s piece on Minnesota’s return to competition in the COVID era was really eye opening and beautifully illustrated the adaptations and sacrifices that made this season possible. 

Katherine: Claire discussed it earlier, but her conversation with Larissa Libby was a hit for me. That woman went OFF, and the result was a fascinating read. 

Talitha: First of all, I need to take my hat off to the hard work all the editors put into covering this season. I enjoyed reading all their features, but I especially liked Kalley’s piece on Mary Korlin-Downs. There was so much heart and passion in it on both the part of the athlete and the author.

Mary Emma: So hard to choose! I really liked Emily M and Rebecca’s feature on Michigan’s historic win at nationals. It’s so great to see Michigan finally peaking at the right time to win the national title. I also enjoyed Katherine’s feature on Towson’s historic season. It was really fun to watch the team have one of its best seasons ever this year, and I didn’t realize how much the team was motivated by being underestimated in the EAGL preseason poll.

What’s your favorite part about writing features about college gymnastics?

Katie W. I really like being able to become a storyteller, in a sense, through reporting behind-the-scenes stories of the sport, athletes and coaches. CGN really strives to cover a variety of teams, athletes and important personnel that don’t see the same spotlight as other college sports.

Emily M: Gymnastics specifically is fun because it’s so under-covered. Sure, the UCLA or Oklahoma team members are used to talking to the media, but when you chat with someone at SEMO or even Iowa, it might be their first interview with someone not affiliated with the school. It’s such a joy to give people what might be their only opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.

Katherine: I second Emily; coaches and gymnasts are usually extremely grateful to be interviewed since they are often a less-covered sport. That often shines through in the interviews. 

Claire: I love getting to know the people behind the results. There’s a tendency among us gym fans to view gymnasts or coaches as superhuman because of their incredible abilities, so getting to showcase the humanity (and, dare I say, personalities) of the sport is pretty special. 

Talitha: I love listening to these young women’s stories, passions and dreams. Every gymnast has a personal story to tell that is equally interesting and worth telling—if I could, I would write a feature on each of them! I love writing, too, so it’s a privilege when these athletes entrust me with their stories.

Mary Emma: I love the feeling of accomplishment when I finish writing a feature and it’s put out into the world. NCAA gymnastics is such a relatively unknown sport, and I love being able to bring more attention to it. It’s especially fulfilling when someone connected to the team lets me know how much they appreciated me writing that feature. 

What’s a story that you wish you wrote or a topic you wish you covered but didn’t get the chance to?

Emily M: Peter Jansson’s return to collegiate coaching at Arizona! I tried to make this one happen, but the Arizona athletic staff was swamped with its women’s basketball team’s championship run so it didn’t quite work out. 

Katie W: I would have loved to write a story on Utah State’s success this season even with COVID-19 opt-outs. It quietly had one of its best seasons and has a nice recruiting class coming in as well. 

Katherine: I noted at the beginning of the season that Missouri had the potential for a great year, even in the absence of Helen Hu. While her being gone definitely hurt, Missouri was still quietly solid in 2021, producing two nationals qualifiers. I’d have loved to have written about the Tigers in their journey. 

Claire: Oklahoma shared a fantastic story early this year about Allie Stern and her sister Lexi, a competitive gymnast in the Special Olympics (a program very near and dear to me). I’d love to write about NCAA gymnasts who, like Stern, are directly involved in the organization or even just put Special Olympics gym on the gymternet’s radar. 

Talitha: I really wanted to write a feature on the two Italian gymnasts at Nebraska, Clara Colombo and Martina Comin. Unfortunately, it was not possible, but I’m still optimistic for next year!

Mary Emma: I didn’t get a chance to write a feature on Temple’s historic season. Being the EAGL SID, I don’t have as much time to write features during the regular season, and during postseason, a couple of other stories took precedence, but I definitely want to go back to it at some point! Maybe during preseason…

Don’t give too much away, but are there any ideas you already have for next season and are itching to write?

Katie W. I’m a complete planner, so I may have already started a running list of feature ideas for next season. There are definitely a few ideas regarding injury comebacks, perfect scores and season reflections. 

Emily M: …oops I already gave it away. I probably will write the Jansson story at some point! Beyond that, though, keep your eyes peeled for an offseason story about one team’s amazing social media/graphics presence and the college gym alumna behind it all.

Katherine: Let’s just say I would love to give some people the opportunity to set the record straight in my features next season! 

Claire: I’ve been reaching out to various compliance officers to clarify some…things. Yes, I’m being intentionally vague! 

Talitha: As I said, I hope I’ll have the chance to write my feature on the two Italians at Nebraska. I also wish to continue writing articles about DIII gymnastics; it’s important to me to give visibility to less talked about teams. Finally, Elizabeth and I discussed having a series of features on incoming freshmen, so hopefully that will become a reality!

Mary Emma: As I said above, I want to write a feature on Temple, but I also want to write some more features highlighting the EAGL. There are so many talented gymnasts and teams in the conference who have stories that are just itching to be told.

Do you have any fun stories or anecdotes from a feature you wrote this year that you didn’t get to share in the article itself?

Katie W. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but I really enjoyed getting to hear the coaches tell stories of the athletes. I think it’s always great to see the behind-the-scenes perspective on how they have overcome challenges and grown as athletes. Another fun interesting component is talking to the athletes about their favorite leotards. It always sparks a good casual conversation.

Emily M: Yes! When I chatted with Rutgers head coach Umme Salim-Beasley (who is a complete joy to interview) for my story on Hannah Joyner’s historic nationals qualification, she was in the ER! The Rutgers team had been in the gym doing fun offseason upgrades and conditioning while Joyner prepared, and someone needed stitches. Salim-Beasley kindly still took my call and gave some great quotes despite the situation.

Katherine: When I was talking to West Virginia assistant coach Zaakira Muhammad about her future in coaching, head coach Jason Butts added, unprompted, that he fully endorses her as a future head coach in the NCAA. It was a sweet moment. 

Claire: When interviewing Iowa State’s Jade Vella-Wright and Addy De Jesus, they played rock-paper-scissors to decide who got to be interviewed first. A very sweet and spontaneous interaction between them! 

Talitha: When I interviewed Bev Plocki, she was driving her car. I was both worried for her safety and fascinated by her ability to drive, have a conversation with me and come up with memorable quotes all at once. She’s truly a Wonderwoman!

Mary Emma: I wasn’t able to work this into the feature, but I interviewed Culton and the North Carolina staff just hours after they found out Culton was named first-team regular season All-American on beam. She is North Carolina’s first one since the legendary Courtney Bumpers, and you could tell how thrilled they were for her. After a disappointing end to the season, it was great to see how much it motivates them for next season.

Finally, what goals do you have for yourself and your features for the 2022 season?

Katie W: I think my goal is to write more pieces with unique angles. I want to be able to create impactful pieces. I also think it would be be nice to branch out more, especially since I have a year of experience with in-depth gymnastics coverage. 

Emily M: Elizabeth will back me up on this: the hook at the beginning of stories. I’m not always the best at setting the scene. I guess I need to read more Wright Thompson. 

Katherine: I have to echo Katie with seeking out unique angles. I feel like I’ve done a lot of general “this team is doing well” features, but I hope to hone in on more interesting storylines that focus on individual gymnasts or elements of the team culture that aren’t quite so obvious. 

Claire: I want to streamline my writing process. I tend to get the finished product I want eventually, but generally only after a lot of second guessing, deleting and sheer panic (and on more than one occasion, a lot of encouragement and support from my wonderful fellow editors). 

Talitha: I have two goals. First, I hope to start writing features from the beginning of season, rather than just toward the end. It took me some time to get going this year because I was a bit intimidated, as it was my first time. However, once I started interviewing athletes and coaches, I realized that the fear was all in my head, as they were all very gracious. Second, I would like to play around with my writing style a little bit more. I like trying new things, and I would like to be able to convey gymnasts’ and teams’ individual character through the style of the article, too.

Mary Emma: Even though I’ve been writing features for almost three years now, I still get intimidated by them. I want to be better at coming up with good questions, as well as coming up with more creative hooks at the beginning of stories, as Emily M said. For me, the hardest part of writing features are those two things.

READ THIS NEXT: CGN Roundtable: Looking Back at the 2021 Season

Article by Katie Walsh, Emily Minehart, Katherine Weaver, Claire Billman, Talitha Ilacqua, Kalley Leer and Mary Emma Burton

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