March 12, 2020: Three Years Later

Every sport has a moment that fans will remember where they were when It happened. For NASCAR fans, it’s the day Dale Earnhardt died a turn away from finishing the 2001 Daytona 500. For many fans of the NFL, it will be the recent sudden cardiac arrest of Damar Hamlin on the field of play. For gymnastics fans, it’s March 12, 2020, the day NCAA gymnastics suddenly stopped.

On that day, the NCAA released a statement announcing the cancellation of the men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournament, as well as “all remaining winter and spring championships” following weeks of monitoring the coronavirus pandemic. The events that followed days, weeks, and months after the initial cancellation are things that athletes and coaches alike remembered three years later and likely will for the rest of their lives. 

This time of year is typically when teams are in the midst of preparing for conference championships, and March of 2020 was no exception. Many teams were able to compete the first weekend of March, setting up for an exciting lead-up to the conference championships. The next week, however, conferences started to announce plans to limit spectators at events to prevent the spread. It was that Thursday, March 12, that the language flipped from limited attendance to canceled altogether. 

Eastern Michigan was in the midst of a very consistent season and preparing to travel for the MAC championship. “We found out the day before we were supposed to travel that we weren’t going,” Zaakira Muhammad, former assistant coach for the Eagles, recalled. “It was hard. It was sad. It was the first year I was in the role of [coaching at Eastern Michigan]. I was learning so much, and I built great relationships, and I truly wasn’t expecting [it].”

Arkansas head coach Jordyn Wieber was in a similar position as Muhammad. It was her first year as a head coach, and Arkansas had been steadily improving as the season progressed. The shutdown challenged Wieber’s leadership and gave her a challenge early on in her career. “It was crazy. I never expected that my first season ever [as head coach] would get cut short, that we wouldn’t get an opportunity to compete in the postseason,” she said.

Craig Ballard, Kent State assistant coach, knew his team was something special that year. Ranked No. 40 at the time, Kent State had two more chances to qualify for the postseason if it could improve its NQS on senior night and at MACs. Ballard knew his team was in a position to do so. It had hit its stride and was peaking at the right time. Then, the call came that the season was over. “The timing was weird,” he stated. “We never had a chance to get those final two scores.” 

Like Kent State, many teams had yet to celebrate their senior classes. Initially, several schools were intending to do so while following new rules limiting spectators. Michigan was one of those schools.

Natalie Wojcik, a sophomore at the time, was one of the stars of a Michigan team destined for an incredible postseason. The Wolverines were ranked in the top five nationally, and though they were coming off of a loss at then No. 1 Oklahoma, several athletes had standout performances, including Wojcik. The cancellation of the season coming right before senior night devastated Wojcik, but the bigger picture took a higher importance. “We understood why the decision was being made,” she said. “The safety of our community and the world as a whole was being prioritized, which obviously comes before sports.”

As the shutdowns progressed, competition was not the only area of NCAA gymnastics affected. Recruiting took a major hit as well. When the season ended, the NCAA instituted what is known as a recruiting “dead period,” which lasted until June 1, 2021. Coaches were allowed to contact recruits via calls or texts, but no travel for the purposes of visiting a recruit was permitted, nor were recruits allowed to travel to schools for any type of visit either. Ballard recalled that one athlete during that dead period committed to Kent State without ever seeing the university, a sign of promise.

For the athletes who were already committed, their focus was on perfecting their skills before entering the NCAA. The shutdown halted that progress too, as level 10 competitions were canceled. Amari Celestine had already committed to Missouri prior to the pandemic, but her focus was to finish out level 10 on a high note by earning a 39-plus in the all-around, which she accomplished in the final meet before the shutdown. “I was able to end that chapter of my life on a good note. That let me know that I was prepared to go and be competitive and aggressive in the NCAA.”

Alyssa Guns was in a similar situation as Celestine as a recruit. Though she had already committed to Kent State, she still had some nerves regarding the shutdown, as she was preparing for her senior club season. “I didn’t really know what to expect [when everything ended],” she remembered. The one thing that comforted her during that time was knowing she wasn’t alone. “[Since] it was happening to the entire country, I knew there were other recruits and freshmen going through the same thing.” Like many other athletes in her position, she planned to play it out and see how her senior season progressed before heading to Kent State.

As the summer of 2020 ended, athletes were allowed to make their way back to campus for preseason training—but not without a few changes. Many universities instituted policies to ensure their athletes could safely return to campus. Wojcik recalled being asked to test for COVID six or seven times a week as a part of her new normal. Preseason training was different as well, as their training groups got smaller and masks were required at all times. For Wojcik, it was difficult for the team to adapt at first because the new restrictions made it harder to build team chemistry. “It was really hard at the beginning, [but] it made us that much more intentional with the time that we spent together and knowing that when we were all together, that was an opportunity we couldn’t let go to waste.”

As the 2021 season got underway, adjustments were made to keep teams from potential exposure. Coaches had to account for social distancing when it came to travel and team activities. Some teams had their season canceled completely due to continued risks while others were only allowed to compete with other conference opponents to try to limit exposure whenever possible. Over 15 meets were either canceled or postponed during the course of the season due to coronavirus contact tracing concerns. Despite the uncertainty of the season, many teams entered with a feeling of unfinished business. Having the season end the way it did gave teams like Kent State the desire to push for more.

“[It] really put a fire under us,” Karlie Franz, a freshman at Kent State at the time, remembered. “We wanted to come back stronger than we’ve ever been. [Even though] the season got cut short, it really motivated us, and that’s why we had such great success [in 2021].”

For Michigan, that unfinished business extended into the new season, as the team dealt with a “pause” in all athletics activities in late January 2021. Similar to how they handled the preseason, the Wolverines showed great adaptability and realized they couldn’t change the circumstances, but they could do what they could to stay safe and stay motivated. That mindset paid off as Michigan overcame the odds and took home its first national title later that season.

Even though we are three years removed from the day that NCAA gymnastics took a rightful backseat to the global pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 are still being felt. Athletes involved in the 2021 season were given an extra year of eligibility, and those opportunities won’t officially end until the final fifth years wrap up their careers in 2025. Despite the circumstances that caused the extra eligibility, the athletes involved are grateful to have another year to spend with their teammates. 

“I didn’t expect to have [a fifth year] in gymnastics when I came into [Michigan],” Wojcik recalled. “But I’m really grateful to have it.”

Wieber acknowledges the challenge all human beings faced during the height of the pandemic and says it makes her grateful for the little things she experiences with her team today. “It allows us to focus on coaching and on our connection of our team, not just emotionally but physically as well.”

READ THIS NEXT: The Fifth-Year Experience Is Rewarding, Business as Usual at Michigan

Article by Savanna Whitten, additional reporting by Peri Goodman

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