The Southeastern Conference is an undeniable force in women’s gymnastics: 19 team national championships, intense rivalries, sellout crowds and landmark TV deals. Over the summer, the University of Oklahoma accepted an invitation to join the conference with the first gymnastics season expected to take place in 2026. The powerhouse Sooner program is likely to provide a dramatic shakeup in the SEC’s pecking order, and head coach KJ Kindler is looking forward to the opportunities and challenges her team will face.
“There are a lot of things to be excited about,” she said. “The passion that surrounds gymnastics in the SEC, the intensity of competition week in and week out, the endorsement of ESPN—these are all things we haven’t had before, so they are really intriguing to me.”
That is not to say Kindler is anxious to leave the Big 12. She mentioned the conference administrators and her coaching colleagues have become like a family over the years. She has also never been a part of a different conference. Kindler began her career as a gymnast at Iowa State, was hired as an assistant and eventually head coach for the Cyclones and is completing her 16th season at Oklahoma. She has been a steady force as the conference landscape changed, with Missouri and Nebraska leaving for new conferences and West Virginia, Denver and soon BYU joining. She was proud to win the 2014 national title not just because it was Oklahoma’s first championship but because it was the Big 12’s as well.
“I’ll definitely miss the people. Change is always hard, and it’s always hard to leave a family of people. There’s some sentimental stuff about leaving.”
Yet Kindler is also excited to work with a new group of coaches in the SEC. A few regular season or postseason matchups have given her a limited opportunity to interact with these colleagues, but joining the conference will expand those interactions. As with the Big 12, Kindler expects the teams will remain strong competitors but will also work together to make their conference stronger.
She acknowledged that these same coaches might make recruiting more intense than it was in the past. In fact, every part of the move to the SEC is likely to be challenging, but that’s something Kindler embraces. Her team will have to make adjustments to find success in its new conference, and perhaps the biggest of these will revolve around the schedule.
Unlike the other large conferences, the Big 12 does not schedule regular season competitions. Kindler has had complete control over every meet, and aside from working around other conferences’ schedules, has been able to build schedules that help her team peak at the right time. She described Oklahoma as a program that likes to peak and come down over the course of the season, and the SEC could make this more challenging. Not only will Kindler give up control of the schedule, but every week will bring an intense competitor. All eight SEC teams finished in the top 30 nationally in 2022, with four of them qualifying to the national championships. The new schedule will also bring the challenge of a regular season conference title and qualifying for the evening session of the SEC championship.
“You’re not always going to walk away a winner,” Kindler said. “But you’re going to be challenged every time and you’re going to learn something about yourself one way or another. That learning is going to make you better for the end of the year.”
Kindler added that this mentality extends to scheduling non-conference meets with powerhouses like Michigan, Utah and UCLA. She hopes that OU will be able to continue competing against these teams after the move because they have built great relationships over the seasons. Matchups like these also afford her team the opportunity to travel around the country, adjusting to new environments and new officials.
With the change still four years away, there is a lot Kindler and her staff have not planned in-depth. One exciting development, however, is about to get started. Oklahoma recently approved a 17,500 square foot expansion to the Sam Viersen Gymnastics Center, due to break ground next year. The facility will house new sports performance and recovery facilities, new team suites and a new team meeting room, among other renovations.
“I think our athletic department understands that they have to up the game joining the SEC,” Kindler said. “Gymnastics certainly has been powerful on a national level, and joining the SEC just adds a little bit more pressure to the pot. Building that addition for us will be huge.”
The facility expansion demonstrates continued commitment on the part of Joe Castiglione, OU’s athletic director. Kindler said Castiglione has always made her feel professionally supported, and the veteran status of Oklahoma’s administration and her own coaching staff will help make the transition to the SEC a bit easier. By the time of the move, all three gymnastics coaches will have completed 20 seasons with the Sooners, and Castiglione will have been with the university for 25 years. That type of experience is somewhat rare in the hyper-competitive world of Division I sports. Prepared leadership makes Kindler’s program uniquely suited to taking on the challenges the SEC will throw at her. For the time being, though, she’s happy to be right where she is.
“I’m where my feet are right now, so I’m trying to stay in the moment,” Kindler said. “And the moment I’m a Big 12 Conference member.”
Article by Ryan Wichtendahl
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