On Sept. 1 Simpson College announced its decision to add women’s and men’s gymnastics. Twenty-four days later it announced the hiring of Emily Barrett-Payne as its first women’s gymnastics coach in program history. It feels like a quick turn around, but when Simpson athletic director Marty Bell was asked about the coaching search, he emphasized what was most important to building a strong new program: “Recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.” The hiring of Barrett-Payne means Simpson is well on its way to bringing collegiate gymnastics in Indianola, Iowa, to life.
Gymnastics at Simpson was a series of right-place-right-time moments. Bell was hired as the athletic director in January 2021. The same firm involved in the search for his position was subsequently hired by USA Gymnastics to look for prospective schools interested in adding college gymnastics. Bell’s reputation of strategically adding collegiate programs to his athletic departments preceded him, and he was approached about adding gymnastics to his new university.
It just so happened that gymnastics, in Bell’s opinion, was a sport that “fits [Simpson] well.” “[Gymnastics] will enhance our academic profile. It will create a point of distinction for the college because not everybody has gymnastics,” Bell said. After attending Olympic Trials in July, Bell presented the idea of an inaugural gymnastics team to the board in August. The decision quickly passed.
Although the news of the team’s addition to NCAA athletics may seem sudden within the gymnastics community, the decision is not one that came without thought and planning on the part of both the university and USA Gymnastics.
There are currently short term plans for the team to train at a local gym, but the long term plan is to have upgraded facilities on campus for both the women’s and men’s teams to call home. In addition, Simpson’s collaboration with USA Gymnastics aims to grow gymnastics at the club level throughout the Indianola area. Simpson hopes to capitalize on the recent Olympic Games and gymnastics’ time in the spotlight to increase the visibility of the sport both on campus and in the community.
When questioned about the plans for the gymnastics program, Bell noted, “If we’re going to do this, we better do it right. We want to do it right or really we’re short changing the student-athletes’ experience and a coach’s experience in that process. So, I’m willing to do what I need to do to make sure we launch this correctly and properly, with conviction and commitment.”
Simpson’s women’s gymnastics program will be the third team in Iowa and the 16th in division III. With two new teams announcing inaugural seasons for 2023, the hope is that the Storm won’t be the last. Although programs such as Seattle Pacific and University of Illinois-Chicago have been cut in recent years, it appears as though USA Gymnastics is actively trying to redeem what was lost. If collegiate gymnastics proves to be a useful asset in growing the gymnastics scene in communities, perhaps more institutions will be willing to see the value in adding a varsity program to their university as well.
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Article by Tavia Smith
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