CGN Roundtable: Olympians and the NCAA

The Olympics are right around the corner! And despite mainly focusing on college gymnastics at CGN, we can barely control our excitement. For this week’s roundtable, we’re talking all things Olympics in relation to college gym.

What are you looking forward to most about Tokyo?

Elizabeth: I’m excited for two general things: 1. I can’t wait to see which elite will be the next Madison Kocian or Kyla Ross that helps elite fans follow them to college and then become a fan of the NCAA too. My guess is Jordan Chiles. 2. I can’t wait to see the lesser-known names compete and bring attention to their schools and college in Tokyo: Ariana Orrego! Tan Sze En! The Gadirovas!

Claire: The representation of so many different NCAA programs (both WAG and MAG) is exciting! On the U.S. team alone, we’re seeing gymnasts from Florida, Utah, Auburn, UCLA, Oregon State, Oklahoma, Stanford, Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota (*ahem*). 

Brandis: The team final! Most of the elite season is focused on individuals, but at the Olympics we’ll finally get a team competition just like we get in college gymnastics. Although it likely won’t be much of a competition for gold, the fight to make the team final and the challenge to snag those final two team medals should be fun to watch.

Tavia: I’m curious to see how the competition itself will be run with so many athletes from different countries given the current COVID-19 situation. Will the Games go off without a hitch similar to most of the NCAA season, or will athletes be quarantined due to contact tracing? Only time will tell. I mainly ask this question because there are so many days of competition. I’m also really excited to see all of these athletes spread their talents throughout the NCAA. The amount of teams represented goes to show the amount of talent that’s in college gymnastics. 

Kathleen: Similar to Elizabeth, I’m honestly most excited for how many people are able to get into NCAA gymnastics because of the Olympics. I followed Kocian and Ross to UCLA in 2016, and I’m really looking forward to seeing fans follow Chiles to UCLA, McCallum to Utah, Carey to Oregon State and Lee to Auburn. I’m definitely most looking forward to what Lee can bring to Auburn as a program. It’s been on the rise for so long and having such a talented athlete with a big name is going to be huge.

Ryan: I think I’m most excited about the history that could be made for “smaller” schools this year. Sunisa Lee attending Auburn after potentially winning team gold and multiple individual medals, or Jade Carey starting at Oregon State after getting the triple-twisting double layout named after her, would be huge for programs that don’t normally have recruits with those types of elite resumes.

Talitha: For most college commits, the Olympics will be their final elite competition, so I hope they will all have a blast and perform their best gymnastics. I’m also especially excited to see former college athletes compete at the Olympics, so I’ll be watching Danusia Francis and MyKayla Skinner closely.

Jenna: I’m looking forward to seeing NCAA alums Danusia Francis and MyKayla Skinner show the world that you can return to elite after college!

Which Tokyo Olympian are you most excited to see compete in NCAA? This can be a current competitor, someone already signed on, a recruit that’s verballed or one that’s still uncommitted.

Elizabeth: If I told you my answer even last year, I’d have laughed at myself, but I’m kind of excited to see McCallum at Utah? I don’t mean this in a mean way but rather that there are objectively more exciting storylines to follow. But she’s certainly the U.S. Olympian that’s the most overshadowed right now, and I think she can do great things in Salt Lake City. I’m also looking forward to Amelie Morgan and the Gadirova twins, no matter where they eventually end up committing.

Claire: Jordan Chiles. It’s been so exciting watching her finally put all of the pieces together this year, and I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in Tokyo. I’ll also be keeping a close eye on the British team. So much talent! Even though it doesn’t collectively have a ton of international experience at the senior level, it’ll be fun to watch. 

Tavia: I’m most excited to see Sunisa Lee! I think her difficulty and form will be a good addition to the Auburn line up. I can’t wait to see which skills from her arsonal survive and make it into her college routines. Will we see a Nabieva in the NCAA? I sure hope so. I think her addition to the team will help to bring other high quality gymnasts to the Plains in the next few years as well. I can really see Auburn returning to its former glory in the coming seasons. The SEC just got that much more competitive. 

Kathleen: Like I said earlier, I’m super excited to see Suni Lee at Auburn, but I’m even more excited for the incoming class at UCLA. With Jordan Chiles, Emma Malabuyo and Brooklyn Moors, it has some of my all-time favorite gymnasts coming in, and I’m so ready to see them thrive in Westwood.

Ryan: OK, I’ll do the sentimental one first: I can’t wait to watch Canadian alternate Emma Spence compete for Nebraska. It brings back memories of watching Kylie Stone and Vanessa Meloche compete as a kid. Nebraska hasn’t had an elite like this in a long time, except for maybe Jessie DeZiel. I’m also really excited to see how Kara Eaker grows in NCAA. I can see her coming into her own at Utah, maybe as an all arounder but definitely on more than just beam. That being said, her beam is in my top five most anticipated routines for 2022.

Talitha: Weirdly enough, some of my favorite Olympians are alternates—I can’t wait to see Leanne Wong, Kara Eaker and Emma Malabuyo in college. I’ve been waiting for so long! Among the athletes who will compete at the Olympics, I’ve been a fan of Amelie Morgan’s since I can remember, so I can’t wait to see her at Utah.

Jenna: I’d have to say Amelie Morgan since I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. women compete this year and haven’t watched Morgan compete as much as the others.

Similarly, which Tokyo Olympian that either went pro or decided not to compete in college do you wish you could have seen compete in the NCAA?

Elizabeth: Ellie Black would have been such a fun person to watch in the NCAA. She has the perfect personality for it (which I know is a meaningless word these days, but it’s accurate here). I also think it would have been fun to see Roxana Popa compete.

Claire: Alexa Moreno. Obviously she’s best known for her powerhouse vaults, but she’s also a beautiful dancer with gorgeous fundamentals on floor and beam. She would have thrived in NCAA!

Tavia: It’d be fun to see Angelina Melnikova compete in college. I have no justification for this, but for some reason she really screams Florida to me. 

Kathleen: I think Larisa Iordache could have done a lot of amazing things in the NCAA. I would have loved to see her at a program like Cal or Michigan that really nurtures beautiful, elegant gymnastics. I think it would have been so fun to see her personality shine through in a loose environment like college gym.

Ryan: Can we say Simone? It feels like cheating, but watching her every weekend would have been bonkers. I can’t comprehend what she would have even competed. I would also have loved to see Murakami Mai in the NCAA. She could have been (even more of) a star.

Talitha: I agree with Ryan, I’m still a bit disappointed that we never got to see Simone at UCLA. Vladislava Urazova also has beautiful lines that would be perfect for the NCAA!

Jenna: Flavia Saraiva. I doubt she ever even considered NCAA, but I can dream!

Now looking at past Olympic competitors, who do you wish competed in college and for what team?

Elizabeth: I’ll pick a non-obvious answer since people like Jordyn Wieber have been discussed ad nauseum. But I think it would have been fun to see some of the Magnificent Seven have NCAA careers. Someone like Jaycie Phelps or Amy Chow would have excelled.

Claire: McKayla Maroney. We never got to see her full potential as an elite, but she could have been truly spectacular in NCAA. I’m going to go full-on dream mode and say she’d have gone to Michigan or some other Big 10 school. Ooh, maybe Iowa? 

Brandis: Like Elizabeth, my mind went right to the Magnificent Seven. In particular, I would have loved to see somebody like Dominique Moceanu take part in college gymnastics. After having such a tumultuous career after earning Olympic gold, I think NCAA gym could have been the perfect way for her to once again have gymnastics success and end on a happy note.

Tavia: Laurie Hernandez would’ve killed it for UCLA. She had high energy floor choreography in elite, and I can only imagine how fun her routines would’ve been with UCLA choreographers. Now picture this… Aliya Mustafina in the NCAA. Sounds iconic if you ask me. I think she would’ve thrived at Utah with its long history of cultivating beautiful gymnastics. 

Kathleen: I’m going to go with Aly Raisman, but at Michigan rather than Florida. I think it would have been really cool to see her have a MyKayla Skinner-style experience where she really had to slow down and focus on her form, especially on bars. I also think it would have been fun to see her connect with the community around Michigan’s program and hopefully she would have found her love for gymnastics again a little sooner.

Ryan: Absolutely Chellsie Memmel. I could see her going to a school like Michigan or maybe Minnesota, but definitely staying close to home. Her competitive fire would have made her a force to be reckoned with wherever she ended up. When she jokingly asked if NIL would allow her to do NCAA a few weeks ago, I almost died.

Talitha: Ugh, I agree with Tavia that Laurie Hernandez would have had an amazing NCAA career, and I’m still not over her going pro. Jeremy Miranda would have done a fantastic job choreographing her routines at Florida where she was committed. I would have also loved to see Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson in college. Nastia said some time ago that she always dreamed of being a Bruin. As for Shawn, I could have seen her at Michigan, not sure why. And obviously Jordyn Wieber was meant to compete at UCLA. I’m still salty about that, too.

Jenna: Dominique Moceanu and Amy Chow were my favorites in the ’90s, and I think I would’ve gotten into college gym much earlier on if they had chosen that path!

What elements of elite gymnastics do you want to see trickle over to college?

Elizabeth: Obviously the more difficulty with perfect NCAA execution is only going to make things more exciting for college fans. I also obviously want that exposure to transfer. I maintain that college is more exciting, and I want elite fans to finally realize it.

Claire: More differentiation between scores. Obviously, scoring biases and lazy judging still happens in elite, but it’s better than every single routine scoring within a couple tenths of each other. 

Brandis: I would love to see more variety in vault entries. I know Yurchenkos are still going to be very prevalent in Tokyo, but with plenty of gymnasts vying for the vault final, I’d love to see some of those Tsuks, half-ons and handsprings make appearances in the NCAA.

Tavia: I would definitely love to see more diversity in skill selection in college. Especially on beam and vault, many routines start to blend together after a while. More diversity in skills and increasing difficulty will make college gymnastics more interesting. 

Kathleen: Everyone has already made a ton of great points, and I agree with all of them. I’ll say specifically for me as a huge beam fan, I’d love to see a little more variety in the skills and series each athlete does. Don’t get me wrong, I love a BHS + LOSO as much as the next person, but it would be fun to see something else every once in a while. Going along with that, it would be great to see a little more reward for these higher-risk skills. Gymnasts are getting better and better and are capable of more and more, but they won’t throw those hard skills if they know it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

Ryan: I can’t think of many, to be honest, but I would enjoy seeing more interesting routine constructions on bars. Elite routines have so many unique combinations, pirouettes, transitions between the bars and even dismounts. Most NCAA routines outside of the very top teams contain a small set of skills and several empty giants. There has to be a way to maintain the consistency needed in an NCAA bar lineup while being more creative with routine construction.

Talitha: I agree that further differentiation in scores would be good, though I hate hearing conversations about ending the 10.0 scoring system in the NCAA, too. In most cases, the problem is not the lack of an open-ended scoring system but the judging itself. I don’t mind not seeing crazy difficulty in college, though a greater variety of vaults would be nice.

Jenna: I’ll agree with Claire and Talitha and say more differentiation in the scoring. I definitely don’t want to see the open-ended scoring in college, but harsher judging (or even just taking the deductions that are called for in the rules!) would be a huge help.

What about elements of college gym you want to see in elite?

Elizabeth: I mean… So many things: the unique leo designs, the fun choreography, the team aspects, the sheer joy of nailing a routine. Elite gymnastics doesn’t need to be buttoned up and straight-laced. The more “fun” it appears to be, the more relatable it will seem to fans and the more enjoyable it’ll be to watch—and continue to watch.

Claire: I agree with Elizabeth that gymnastics doesn’t need to be emotionless. These athletes have all put so much into their craft; why shouldn’t they celebrate their successes or root for each other? 

Brandis: Just as my fellow editors said, I would love the atmosphere to be way less tense and to inject some fun back into it. Hopefully Mykayla Skinner can bring some of the energy she had competing for Utah over to Tokyo.

Tavia: I want to see some college level celebrations sneak their way into elite gymnastics. Just picture the athletes at the Olympics being as excited as Gabby Wilson after Michigan won the national championship. I agree with Elizabeth that the excitement will make gymnastics seem more relatable and fun to watch for viewers. In addition, I hope more emphasis on stuck landings gets back into elite. There’s nothing more exciting that finishing a solid set with a stuck landing.

Kathleen: One of the reasons I love watching elite men’s gymnastics in the U.S. is because they have the college mindset out on the floor. They cheer loudly for themselves and others, they’re not afraid to show emotion and things don’t feel so serious all the time. I’d love to see elite women’s gymnastics do the same and take some of that college joy, excitement and love for the sport into these big competitions. At the end of the day, gymnastics is supposed to be fun—whether it’s being done at the Olympics or in the NCAA.

Ryan: I think the general light-heartedness and team camaraderie of NCAA is starting to become more prevalent in elite, which is wonderful to see. I guess the next step would be a stick crown? It would be hilarious to see what the other countries would do, and how the gymnasts would react to having a sparkly beret or a cape draped on them after a routine.

Talitha: I’d like to see two. First, improved execution. College gymnastics is beautiful because every element is performed as close to perfection as it possibly can. Second, enthusiasm. It pains my heart to see elite gymnasts not even smile after a hit routine.

Jenna: I agree with everyone else, but I’d like to add the controlled lunge on floor! It was in a draft version of the next code of points, but it seems to have now been removed. Make it make sense!!

Finally, it’s prediction time! How do you think our college gym folks will fare in Tokyo?

Elizabeth: I’ll be bold because why not. McCallum will win gold with Team USA. MyKayla Skinner will be the second vault finalist with Simone because Jade Carey’s difficulty won’t be fully back because of her injury. Carey will get the triple double named but miss out on floor finals. Jordan Chiles will upset Sunisa Lee for the second all around spot and win a medal there while Lee goes on to become the most decorated American behind Simone, winning a beam medal plus silver on bars and maybe even one on floor. Danusia Francis will sneak into the all around final, Shallon Olsen will make vault finals and Brooklyn Moore will qualify on floor. Realistic? Probably not. Fun to think about? Absolutely.

Claire: Skinner is going to two-per Carey out of the vault final and get silver, but Carey will earn silver on floor and get triple double layout named after her. Chiles will surprise everyone by making an event final (I’m actually thinking all around). Lee will win at least one individual medal. McCallum will be fabulous and rock solid during qualifications but get two-perred out of every individual final. Canada will earn a surprise fourth place in the team competition while Olsen qualifies to vault finals. Danusia Francis will break 51 in the AA and have the best leo of the competition. 

Tavia: This is a scary proposition, but I’m going to take a shot in the dark here. Sunisa Lee will two-per-country both Mykayla Skinner and Jade Carey out of the floor final. She will also get bronze on bars and narrowly miss qualifying for the beam final. Jordan Chiles will sneak into the all around final and contend for the silver medal. Carey will qualify for the vault final after showing her upgraded second vault, and finish in second. Grace of course will be solid as always and go on to win team gold. 

Kathleen: Oh goodness, I always hate making predictions because I know I’m going to jinx someone. All I’ll say is that the U.S. will win team gold, Skinner will make vault finals but Carey will make floor finals, and I love Claire’s Idea of Canada swooping in for a fourth place finish, so I’ll add that into my prediction, too!

Ryan: I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that this will be the most successful group of incoming NCAA athletes ever. With four of the six Americans starting next season, joined by some of the top Canadians and British athletes, 2022 is going to be absolutely incredible. I expect Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum and Sunisa Lee will be part of a team gold medal, and that Jade Carey will medal on vault. I’m also thinking Lee for possible individual medals in the all around, on bars and maybe beam while Chiles could medal on floor. While other big name recruits like Brooklyn Moors and Amelie Morgan aren’t likely to medal, I’m hopeful they will still lead their teams to great performances. My last prediction is that the people who are two-per-countried out of finals will absolutely kill it in NCAA and win all the things.

Talitha: Sunisa Lee will outscore Simone in the beam final as Laurie Hernandez did five years ago. She will also win gold on bars with her fabulous routine. Amelie Morgan will hit a beautiful beam set in qualification and make it through to the final. MyKayla Skinner will qualify to the vault final and will break into the 14s on floor in qualification, just to annoy the haters. Lee and Jordan Chiles will also go neck-and-neck in the all around in qualification, I’m not sure who will end up being victorious. Grace McCallum will be much closer to the other members of the team than people give her credit for. Shallon Olsen will qualify to the vault final and Brooklyn Moors to the floor final. Jade Carey will get her triple-twisting double layout named after her.

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Article by Elizabeth Grimsley, Claire Billman, Tavia Smith, Kathleen McPartland, Ryan Wichtendahl, Talitha Ilacqua, Jenna King, Brandis Heffner

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