Marie-Sophie Boggasch Alaska

Alaska Finds New Life After Program Officially Reinstated

On June 22, 2022, the Alaska gymnastics program was officially reinstated. But in the team’s mind, this announcement was ceremonial. For the athletes, Alaska gymnastics had been saved since February 2021 when it received a crucial fundraising extension from the Board of Regents. 

The team was practicing off campus because of COVID restrictions, and head coach Marie-Sophie Boggasch described the anxious atmosphere in the gym. “When we received the extension, we were all together, and we had the Board of Regents meeting blaring on the speaker on maximum volume. We were just waiting for that vote, and I think that was the most special moment because we knew that we had a fighting chance again.”  

With this extension the Seawolves now had until June 2022 to raise roughly $800,000 and felt more confident in their ability to do it. Even with this confidence, it came down to the wire. No stone was left unturned, as the team had virtual fundraisers, auctions, and merchandise sales. The coaching staff took payroll cuts, and athletes on the team even sold their hair to raise money. With donations ranging from $2 to $60,000, it was truly an all-hands-on-deck effort. 

Throughout it all, Boggasch has been the team’s fearless leader. She competed at Alaska from 2013 to 2016 and was a standout on vault and bars. She returned to the program as a graduate assistant coach in 2019 and 2020, and after head coach Tanya Ho resigned following the 2020 season to be an assistant coach at her alma mater, UC Davis, Boggasch was tapped to become interim head coach. 

To say that her first season was untraditional would be an understatement. Entering a head coaching position during the pandemic was daunting enough, but within a month of being named head coach, the program was terminated. Rather than being intimidated by the task at hand, Boggasch embraced the challenge head on, being one of the first to donate alongside assistant coach Kendra Daniels. 

Boggasch was ready to fight for the program. “We expected the team to pitch in. We told them that we can do it and we were happy to lead them through the efforts, but it was going to be all hands on deck. We were very fortunate that everybody bought in.” 

Fundraising almost a million dollars is no easy feat, but unexpectedly, the pandemic provided the team with an opportunity. The team knew early in the fall of 2020 that it would not compete during the 2021 season. Rather than viewing this as a season off, the team approached it as an opportunity to dedicate all its energy to fundraising and saving the program. 

From making phone calls to donors to following up with local businesses, the coaches and gymnasts worked relentlessly to raise money and were rewarded with that crucial extension in February 2021. As the 2021 season came to a close, despite all challenges, the team was more connected and dedicated than ever. 

But as the 2022 season approached, Boggasch wanted the gymnasts to focus on competing and knew her staff could not rely on the athletes as much. As the athletes played a lesser role in fundraising, stress mounted for the coaching staff. “It was a more taxing year for me personally, but I know that our team didn’t feel as much of the pressure anymore because we purposefully kept it away from them,” Boggasch said. 

Combining uncertainties related to the future of the program with challenges related to COVID, every meet the Seawolves competed in 2022 was a victory in and of itself. With the fate of the program still up in the air, every competition was appreciated and a “humbling energy” surrounded the team, knowing that any meet the gymnasts competed in could be their last. With this attitude of gratitude, the Seawolves competed a total of 12 times, scoring as high as 192.250. 

All of this adversity has resulted in a team that despite all challenges is extremely close and dedicated to one another. “We really bonded with our athletes on a level that they know they can trust us blindly and that we will walk through fire for them,” Boggasch said. 

This idea of walking through fire for one another extends out of the gym for Boggasch, who describes the coaching staff’s philosophy as putting the experience first and that every team member is “human first, student second, and then athlete third.” 

For senior Mackenzie Robinson, this approach has been crucial to helping her get through her college career. During Robinson’s freshman year, she got lost during a bar dismount and fell on her head, triggering a congenital brain condition that she did not previously know about. It took over a year to find a neurosurgeon who could diagnose and treat her, and she essentially did no training at all through the 2021 season. 

After finally receiving a diagnosis, Robinson recalls walking into the gym and Boggasch pulling her aside saying, “I believe you,” as they both began to cry. And for Robinson, “that was the first time I felt that my pain and injury were valid, and I wasn’t just making it up. My coaches have been so amazing at working with me so I can continue living my NCAA dream.” 

Aside from Boggasch, Robinson described her teammates as crucial to helping her fall in love with the sport again. “My Seawolf family definitely helped relight that fire,” she said. 

Boggasch believes that this mentality and team atmosphere is what has been able to keep so many members of the team at Alaska over the last two years, as well as allowing the coaching staff to recruit even when the program was set to be cut. And to that extent, Boggasch recruited as if things were business as usual, resulting in a massive freshman class this season with seven people. 

What may seem like an impossible recruiting pitch was made easier by the incredible fundraising work the team was doing. “I think recruits noticed that and were impressed with what we put together. They got that feeling from our team like wow, this is something that I want to be part of because they’re fighting for it,” Boggasch said.

One such recruit was Paola Barahona, who in 2019 was the first Salvadorian gymnast to compete at a World Championships. “The team and coaching staff have been so supportive not only in gymnastics, but also mentally and in things related to academics,” Barahona said. She spoke fondly of her first semester at Alaska and said that despite the uncertainty during her recruitment process she “wouldn’t change it for anything.” This approach has clearly been working; she’s been a leader on beam all season for the Seawolves, scoring as high as 9.825.

As the Alaska gymnastics program enters a new era, Boggasch has clear goals in mind, from increasing start values on vault and depth across all events to polishing details like stuck dismounts and hitting handstands. And as the 2023 regular season comes to a close, it’s clear the team has made progress on these goals. Despite some inconsistencies, the Seawolves have scored as high as 193.700, including an impressive 48.875 on beam against William & Mary.

But more than anything, the team wants to be undeniable—one of its words for the season—in everything it does. From pushing for a higher team GPA to making a difference in the community to improving its gymnastics, the team is focused on building a legacy in every possible way. And Boggasch and her staff are there to support them every step of the way too, saying that her biggest goal is to give student athletes “that Alaska experience” and to “show why it was worth it to save UAA.”

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Article by Rebecca Williams

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