2023 had some very bright moments: broken records, new programs, and great progress in the sport. It also had some challenging lows, from scoreless meets to poor judging and many injuries. We rounded up the best of the best and worst of the worst.
Fisk, Simpson, and Greenville’s Debuts
The inaugural seasons for three schools was undoubtedly the most important highlight of the season, marking substantial growth for the sport. Fisk’s debut at the highly-anticipated and widely-watched Super 16 Challenge was arguably the most memorable, as it became the first HBCU to compete in NCAA gymnastics.
After losing Kiya Johnson to an Achilles injury just seven routines into the season, the Tigers were written off as a lost cause by more than a few gym fans. Even more joined in as Kai Rivers and KJ Johnson were sidelined later in the season. However, the adversity only seemed to motivate LSU: The Tigers maintained their top 10 status all season long, nabbed a solid regionals seed, snagged a berth to nationals, and even qualified for Four on the Floor. That’s quite a way to respond when facing adversity.
Boise State Finally Perfect
It was a standout season for Broncos Courtney Blackson and Emily Lopez, who each earned their first career perfect scores and qualified for the NCAA championships to finish off their year. Lopez earned the program’s first 10 on bars in a home meet against BYU, while Blackson stuck her Yurchenko one and a half at regionals to grab her 10 and secure a trip to Fort Worth. Blackson dialed in for another stellar landing at championships as well to finish at NCAA runner-up on vault.
Haleigh Bryant’s 10.0 Hat Trick
In LSU’s final regular season dual, Bryant was just a beam routine away from a perfect 40 in the all around as she landed 10s on vault, bars, and floor en route to an incredible 39.875 total. Bryant had previously earned several 10s on vault for her gigantic front pike half, but her hat trick marked her first perfect scores on both bars and floor.
Bridgeport was the single most-improved team year-over-year in college gymnastics in 2023. The Purple Knights improved 15 places in the final rankings, all under second-year head coach Lorraine Gallow and just three years after the program was in danger of being lost. Bridgeport had a new-look roster, with a massive incoming class and a few transfers into the program. The future’s looking bright.
Joy in the Bruin Bubble
Following two seasons of missing nationals and more negative headlines than positive, a leadership change and culture reset brought new life to UCLA in 2023 and saw the blueblood ascend back to title-contending status. Head coach Janelle McDonald was tremendous in turning around the program in her first season, not only elevating the Bruins to a top five finish but fostering an environment where the athletes genuinely looked happy to be there.
Media Voting for Awards
In a first for NCAA gymnastics, the Pac-12 asked select media to participate in voting for weekly conference awards in addition to coaches this season. The decision to include outside media adds a layer of objectivity to the process, and it’s something we hope to see the Pac-12 expand upon and more conferences choose to do in the future.
Thriving Fifth Years
We saw many fifth years reach new levels of success in 2023. Gymnasts who transferred, like Josie Angeny, Sandra Elsadek, Rachel Baumann, Norah Flatley, and Abby Brenner became crucial to their new teams. Meanwhile, fifth (and sixth!) years that stayed put thrived as well: Natalie Wojcik, Abby Heiskell, Lynnzee Brown, Derrian Gobourne, Deja Chambliss, Arianna Patterson, and many more had excellent seasons. They all proved that longevity is possible in a sport that historically favored the very young.
Trinity Thomas’ 10.0 Record
Even in a year of excessive 10s, it was a treat to watch Gator great Thomas stick her vault and nationals to secure her name in the record books, especially after injury. Talk about exiting the college gymnastics stage with an exclamation point!
A Historic Year for the NCGA on Floor
Division III floor was good. Better than ever good. Rhode Island’s Kelsey Gates led the way, but 10 NGCA teams—Brockport, UW-Whitewater, UW-Oshkosh, Springfield, Ithaca, UW-La Crosse, Rhode Island, Cortland, Ursinus, and UW-Stout—all went 48.025 or better on the event this year, as did Simpson and Centenary which compete independently and within the USAG, respectively. Brockport owns the honor of being the only 2023 NCGA team to break a 49.000.
Julia Bedell Topples Record
Brown’s Julia Bedell scored a 9.950 on floor to clinch the GEC title for the Bears. What’s more impressive is that the score nabbed her a new program record, topping the 9.925 inked in the books by Alicia Sacramone, Corey Holman and Caroline Morant. Bedell went on to take home the USAG national floor title, only Brown’s third-ever title winner.
Tasha Brozowski Dedicates Routine to Father
The Maryland junior showed the heart of a champion, helping her team post its best-ever bars and team scores at regionals less than a day after learning her father, Patrick, would not survive a recent motorcycle accident. Immediately after drilling her double layout dismount and saluting, Brozowski burst into tears and was engulfed by head coach Brett Nelligan and her teammates.
Kiya Johnson’s Achilles
The only thing worse than an Achilles injury is an Achilles injury that we watch happen in real time. Johnson went down during her floor routine at Kentucky and we all held our breath, only to have our worst fears confirmed. LSU went through the wringer this year, and this injury kicked off all of that bad luck. The only bright side is that we’ll get to see Johnson’s triumphant return in 2024.
Sunisa Lee’s Departure from College Gymnastics
We all knew it was coming this year, but that doesn’t soften the blow. We got to see two years of Lee’s exquisite gymnastics in college, but with Paris 2024 looming on the horizon, she’s shifting her focus back to elite. What’s more, she stopped competing earlier than planned when non-gymnastics health concerns held her out of the last month of the season.
Trinity Thomas’ Injury
Thomas united all fans of the sport—Florida fans or otherwise—in her quest to break the perfect 10 record. When she stopped her floor routine at regionals with a lower leg injury, the gymnastics community was left with more questions than answers. Thankfully for Thomas, Florida, and gym fans everywhere, she tied the record at nationals, but it’s hard to say goodbye to one of the all-time greats when she’s limited due to injury. While the ending doesn’t mar her storied career, we would’ve liked to see her floor routine one last time.
What is there to say that hasn’t been already? Judging across the sport was nothing short of a mess this year. We can only hope that the outcry this season will be the wakeup call the NCAA and NAWGJ need to make adjustments to the flawed system currently in place.
Mysterious Coaching Departures
Nilson Medeiros and Jess Santos both disappeared from Iowa State and Arizona State, respectively, this year. Neither athletic department made statements beyond that each was on leave. Santos’ position appears to be open, and Iowa State has let its entire staff go. It’s disheartening that gymnastics continues to operate with such little transparency, even after all we’ve been through in the sport over the past decade.
Badly Behaved Fans
There were rumblings, both from regionals and nationals, of groups of fans or individuals that treated fans of other teams badly. We expect some growing pains as gymnastics continues to gain popularity, but we hope that longtime fans and parents don’t use unwritten rules as an excuse to harass other fans. Gymnastics is—or should be—unequivocally a space for everyone.
We Still Don’t Always Get Scores
In the year 2023, the Metroplex Challenge still doesn’t have live scores or video. To add insult to injury, the Purple and Gold Classic had no video and the scoring system broke halfway through. Repeatedly throughout the year the long-used scoring platforms teams rely on broke mid-meet or never worked at all. Imagine a football or basketball game without scores. It’s unconscionable. If gymnastics is going to be taken seriously, the live scores issue needs to be resolved. The sooner the better.
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Article by Brandis Heffner and Emily Minehart
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