League Rules, Forgotten Leotards and Logistics Galore—What It’s Like to Travel With Rutgers

“Does everyone have your leo?” Someone says as the Scarlet Knights prepare to board the bus, while freshmen in charge of various pieces of equipment—the springboard and the bar scraper, which is in truth just a car snow brush, as well as recovery devices—haul them toward the bus. “Does everyone have their grips?”

It’s a call that happens every time the team heads out to an away meet after one gymnast forgot to pack her leotard in 2020. It’s just one measure of insurance among many to be sure everything and everyone gets to the destination.

The Rutgers roster is large, coming in at 27 gymnasts, and simply by geography the New Jersey-based Scarlet Knights have to travel farther distances than many other teams in the conference, since the rest of the Big Ten is mostly scattered around the Midwest.

Head coach Umme Salim-Beasley doesn’t mind the travel, though, since historically her team has scored well on the road. She doesn’t have much control over the schedule, either, since the conference office handles the six in-conference meets—five head-to-head duals and the Big Five competition—which only leaves a handful of regular season weekends for other contests.

Salim-Beasley likes to get her team outside of the Northeast, and she looks for friendly scoring environments and the chance to go up against top teams. Sometimes the entire team can travel, but due to a Big Ten rule for in-conference meets and any other meet with a conference team in attendance, Salim-Beasley can only travel 18 gymnasts.

That means bringing her four lineups with alternates, and having to leave everyone else at home. The conference does allow one exception, though: Teams can apply to go over the 18-gymnast cap once per season, so Salim-Beasley brings the whole squad to Penn State, a meet where Rutgers takes the bus rather than flying.

Planning the ins-and-outs of travel, from the charter bus to flights to hotels, is up to a travel company. Some of the more detailed points are taken care of by Director of Operations, Rutgers alumna Makenzey Shank. She assigns roommates, which can be complicated because Salim-Beasley never wants gymnasts in the same class to room together, and gymnasts never have the same roommate twice in a season. That way everyone on the roster spends time with everyone else.

Nutrition on the road is handled by the team’s nutritionist, an integral member of the staff over the past several seasons, and Salim-Beasley thinks about making sure her team stays sufficiently hydrated during travel as well.

“Our nutritionist packs little snack bags for them to be able to have on the plane,” she said, emphasizing that having enough fuel and hydration is critical to muscle recovery.

More than just food is organized for the team, though. Salim-Beasley creates detailed itineraries—”Down to the minute!”—and packing lists, outlining each day’s activities and outfits, including what leo to pack.

“You pack from the sheet, and you put it right in your bag,” said senior and fourth-year team manager Megan Ribaudo of the itineraries. Leotards and grips always go in carry-ons, in the case of any checked bag issues or lost luggage.

There are also certain expectations that come with travel. The Scarlet Knights travel start to finish as a team: That means no one is permitted to break off from the group. Plus, there’s a curfew when all team members are meant to be in their rooms. These travel expectations are communicated clearly on the itinerary, and Salim-Beasley goes over the policies before each season.

Part of each trip always includes something fun and unique to do at the team’s destination. In the past, the Scarlet Knights have checked out museum exhibits, learned how chocolate is made, and even visited a glass blowing gallery.

The travel schedule can be packed, since Salim-Beasley also prioritizes stretching or yoga, ensuring her gymnasts’ bodies are recovered from sitting on a plane or bus and are ready to compete. The trainer will also schedule rehab sessions for anyone dealing with a nagging issue.

While recovery and rest are key pieces of the puzzle, academics always come first. If any member of the group needs to skip an activity to get classwork done or to study, all she needs to do is text Salim-Beasley. That extends to managers, too. Ribaudo plans her time in advance, recognizing down-time in the schedule and planning to work on assignments or study in those quieter moments.

The academic focus means bringing hot spots on the bus and ensuring that everyone on the team has the tools they need to get their schoolwork done. Sometimes that means a gymnast or manager attends a Zoom class on the road, which was the case for Ribaudo once in 2021.

This season, all of Rutgers’ managers have been traveling with the team. Ribaudo, who has been with the Scarlet Knights since her freshman year, is glad to have the whole group on the road. That allows each manager to really focus on their assigned tasks for the meet and not fret about telling someone how to set a springboard while adjusting the bars.

“In the four-minute bar touch my heart rate is normally up to 205!” said Ribaudo, pointing out that no matter what, the job gets stressful, especially on bars, which has a lot of moving pieces.

While manager jobs are fluid and can change from week to week—as in everything else, Salim-Beasley is incredibly organized and keeps a spreadsheet of responsibilities for each manager—some gymnasts are attached to one specific manager, and request they be the one to set the springboard on vault or pull the landing mat on beam.

Ribaudo and Hannah Joyner are classmates and have been together over three years now. They have a special routine on vault, whether at home or on the road.

“Before [Joyner] vaults, for both my sake and her sake, we give each other a thumbs up that I’ve check the hand mat, I’ve check the board, and I know it’s on the right setting,” said Ribuado.

Managers are instrumental in making travel smooth for the gymnasts, ensuring that any little things they’re accustomed to in the gym are replicated on the road. To Ribaudo, part of the manager’s job is to think of those small things and plan for them, so the gymnasts don’t need to spend mental space on them and are free to focus on only gymnastics and not the logistics that go along with it.

Rutgers’ travel schedule is intense. The Scarlet Knights headed to Oregon State on Friday, January 27 and then crossed the country again to compete at Penn State on Monday, January 30. To prepare for big travel weekends, Salim-Beasley sometimes adjusts practice times, making them a bit later in the mornings so her team can sleep in and prepare for Pacific Time.

“West Coast timing is always tough,” said Salim-Beasley. “We really try to get their clocks reset so they’re alert at a time that we would not usually be doing gymnastics on the East Coast.”

On Friday, the team will slept in and had a later breakfast. Then the Scarlet Knights went on one of their team excursions to make sure everyone is up and moving throughout the day before the competition.

Right after competing, the team immediately flew back East and then bussed to Penn State. That way they’ll have a full day back on Eastern Time to rest and adjust before the Monday conference matchup. It’s the only time this season that Rutgers gymnasts will miss any class. Salim-Beasley has noticed more Monday meets across the national schedule this year, which is an added wrinkle to travel logistics.

For Ribaudo, missing class to travel with the team is just a matter of clear communication with professors at the beginning of the season. She’s never had any issues, and the team academic advisor also communicates the schedule to professors ahead of the season and provide a travel letter when they need to be excused from a class.

Ultimately, travel is a complex and challenging piece of the student-athlete—and student manager—experience, but with careful planning and communication, it runs like a well-oiled machine.

Undoubtedly, though, Rutgers will continue to yell, “Does everyone have your leo?” before boarding the bus, because if there’s one thing that can’t be forgotten, it’s a leotard.

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Article by Emily Minehart

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