San Jose State’s Rise No Surprise to Joanne Bowers

It all started with a tweet. On November 27th, 2021, San Jose State head coach Joanne Bowers quote tweeted a preseason poll and sent a message to the gymternet: “Watch out for sleeper San Jose State!”  While this tweet only got 25 likes, hindsight gives it a prophetic aura. After scoring its second best team score in program history in it’s first meet of the season against Denver, it was clear something was different, and as the season progressed, its record book was rewritten time and time again. It was clear: San Jose State was a team to watch.

The Spartans finished last season ranked 35th, their highest ranking since 2014. And despite a multi-fall beam performance during the first round of the Seattle regional against Stanford, head coach Joanne Bowers exuded nothing but pride in her team’s performance.

But for both the Spartans and Bowers, the road to Seattle was a long yet rewarding one.

When Bowers arrived at San Jose State in 2018, she brought a plethora of coaching experience with her. In addition to her time at Washington, she has been an assistant coach at Michigan, Kent State and Illinois State and describes her coaching philosophy as a combination of all of those schools, expressing profound gratitude for all that she’d learned from each one. 

Bowers cited Michigan head coach Bev Plocki’s influence, describing her as a “task master” who helped her develop so much operational knowledge about running a gymnastics program. Additionally, early in her career, Bowers said that she was constantly anxious about being well-liked and that Plocki taught her “you’ve got to do what’s right for the program, even if it’s tough decisions.” Flash forward five years later, and Bowers was encouraged by Plocki to take the job at Washington because it was an amazing opportunity and an amazing program.  

As head coach at Washington, Bowers quickly learned that “you have to coach within your personality” and that despite all of the amazing coaches she’d worked with throughout her career, she couldn’t try to be them. From this emerged the principles that guided the Huskies during her tenure in Seattle, resulting in nine straight regional appearances. 

In the spring of 2016, Bowers resigned as the head coach of Washington to spend more time with her husband who coaches college football; they hadn’t lived in the same location for over three years. So she moved to midwest, and even though she wasn’t coaching then, she knew she wasn’t done.

Two years later, Bowers’s move to San Jose felt almost fated. Her youngest son was about to start playing football at California, and the head gymnastics coach at San Jose State, Wayne Wright, had just retired. Bowers and her husband wanted to move to California, and Marie Tuite, the athletic director at San Jose State, was Bowers’ direct supervisor for her first five years at Washington. 

This connection instantly drew Bowers to the job at San Jose State. “I knew she liked gymnastics, and I knew she would help just like she did at Washington,” Bowers said of Tuite. And although Bowers had never been to San Jose before accepting the job, she instantly fell in love with values of hard work among the city and the team. 

Bowers summarized her coaching philosophy as “always do the right thing, have high standards, and have assistants that cover your weaknesses,” and that at San Jose State, the larger question is “how can we help them grow, and how can we help them get ready for life?”

When it comes to executing that philosophy, Bowers heaped praise on her assistants Neal Gallant, formerly an assistant at Stanford, and Morgan Ross, who competed for the University of Alaska and most recently was an assistant coach at Yale. Bowers also attributed the team’s success to its culture. 

Senior Jada Mazury described the team’s culture between the athletes and coaches as being built on trust and mutual respect for high standards saying, “Everyone has that person on the team who they can go to and get that extra push from and they’ll take it the best way possible.” 

Bowers noted that these types of leaders were strategically recruited, and that “we wanted people that absolutely loved gymnastics; we wanted people that weren’t finished—they got things to prove.”

Bowers emphasized the importance of the family environment, too.

“We’re such firm believers that culture matters. I’ve underachieved in years before with so much talent with people that maybe don’t really love the sport anymore, are kind of burned out, that care more about themselves than the team. You underachieve in those years—you just do.” 

The performance level of the Spartans in 2022 was not an underachievement in the least, but it also reflected a profound, overarching sense of gratitude. And while current seniors Mazury and Emma Milne can talk happily about the team and the gratitude they have, much of their college gymnastics careers have been in limbo because of the COVID-19 pandemic. San Jose State is in Santa Clara County, one of the strictest in the country in terms of pandemic restrictions, and this immensely affected the Spartans in 2021, only being able to compete five times when most teams barely had any disruption.

Once back on campus after the shortened 2020 season and school year, the team’s logistical struggles only truly began. Athletes had to practice in shifts, only do cardio outside, and in order to be housing compliant, live with their training groups. Mazury described this time as extremely difficult and frustrating, and that “it was really hard to see the light at the end of tunnel.”

The Spartans didn’t get to compete until March that season, and getting to compete at all was the greatest victory. “It was the shortest season, but it was really rewarding because we made it,” Milne said.

To that extent, the shortened seasons in both 2020 and 2021 hid the progress that the team was making. While there were glimpses of brilliance in 2020, like Milne going 9.925 on bars and beam, the team scores didn’t quite match the progress Bowers was seeing in the gym. In the fall of 2020, the team’s new training gym opened and for the first time, the gymnasts had soft landing surfaces and pits, which further helped their preparation. But with all the training restrictions and uncertainty, this progress didn’t quite translate to the competition floor.

At the start of 2022, uncertainties swirled because of the Delta variant. But the team wanted to compete no matter what and proceeded with their meet against Denver. After putting up a 195.950, at the time their second highest score in program history, the team really started to believe in itself. Milne reflected on the meet as one of her favorite moments from the season.

“I don’t want to say shocking because we knew how good our gymnastics was, but to see it validated was really crazy and really good for us.”

The next week, the Spartans competed in a quad meet at Oregon State, only scoring a 192.725. In the post-meet huddle, the team admitted that the pressure to be perfect “because everyone expected us to be good now” caused nerves instead.

And similar to what Bowers learned early in her career about coaching within her personality, the team learned that they needed to compete within themselves and not try to live up to the expectations to others around them.

Bowers commented that the team’s mantra was “if we just have fun and we’re grateful that we get to compete, we do better.” After setting five program records, winning the MPSF championship, and qualifying to regionals, it’s clear the team embraced this idea whole-heartedly.

The Spartans didn’t have their best day at regionals. Finishing on beam with a lot of nervous energy resulted in multiple falls. But the athletes took it as a learning experience and to plan to use it as guidance and a confidence builder for the years to come. 

This season, the attitude of gratitude is the same.

“I have been feeling much more grateful at the meets and really letting it sink in that I am super lucky to be able to do this and that I have all these amazing people around me,” Milne said.

Reflecting on the past three seasons, Milne recalled a moment after the Spartans meet against UCLA in 2021. The team was on the bus, and Bowers said to them, “I’m really proud of you guys for stringing this together, but next year we will be at regionals.”

And while at the time Milne and the rest of the team sort of brushed this off as a big goal to aspire to, on the plane to regionals Milne thought, “Yeah, she called this.”

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Article by Rebecca Williams

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