The Transfer Portal: How It Works and How to Normalize It in Gymnastics

Nervousness. Excitement. Sadness. Walking on eggshells. These words and phrases describe the whirlwind of emotions that an athlete feels when making the difficult decision to enter the transfer portal. Since its inception, the transfer portal has caused discourse from gymnasts, coaches, and fans alike, but behind the scenes, the process has more to it than fans may realize. 

What Is the Transfer Portal?

The transfer portal, in simple terms, is a way for an athlete to let coaches around the country know that they are interested in potentially transferring to another institution. From Aug. 1st, 2021 to July 31, 2022, 49 gymnastics student-athletes entered the transfer portal compared to only 14 the year before. Because of the extra year of eligibility given in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the transfer portal has become more of a normalized part of the athletics experience.

However, speculation can follow an athlete throughout their transfer experience. “When you see someone in the portal, you kind of wonder, why are they leaving? Was there an argument? Were there behavioral problems?” Georgia fifth-year Sandra Elsadek explained. “It’s a double standard [that mainstream sports athletes] can do it, but [gymnasts] can’t because that’s just a bad look.”

If an athlete is considering a transfer, it’s not a choice that comes lightly. For most, it’s program or coaching differences or issues within the team that force an athlete to decide to look elsewhere. For others, it’s because they want to pursue another academic opportunity or there’s a lack of scholarship money available.

Julianna Roland’s transfer situation was unique, as her former program, Bridgeport, was in danger of shutting down post-COVID. “When I transferred, I thought I was done [with] gymnastics, so it gave me the opportunity to compete at Temple when Bridgeport was going through all of its issues with COVID. It’s really cool to be able to get a different opportunity if something doesn’t feel right.”

For coaches, having the transfer portal available allows them to pick up an athlete with immediate NCAA experience that can contribute in an area of great need. Utah head coach Tom Farden has picked up multiple transfers through the portal over the last few seasons, most recently Abby Brenner.

When Farden goes into the portal to find an athlete, he compares it to looking at a grocery list. “Your list changes all the time based on what you’re cooking,” he stated. “What we’re cooking at Utah has changed over the years. What we think as a staff we need next, sometimes we can find it in an incoming freshman, but sometimes you can find it in a transfer.”

Like most things, though, there are unintended consequences with the transfer portal. LSU head coach Jay Clark noted that the portal can sometimes be used as an easy out for an athlete.  “It can create a situation where it’s a little too easy for individuals to leave. In some ways, there should be some ability to work things through. We’re not doing them any favors when we tell them if they don’t like something, you can just leave.”

Entering the Portal

When an athlete makes the decision to transfer, the list of people they have to inform is smaller than many may assume. All transfer portal requests are handled through the compliance department at the university. The athlete is provided a form that must be signed by the athlete, the compliance department, and the coach to acknowledge that the athlete wants to enter the portal. After the form is signed, a video training must be completed by the athlete. 

Once all of the entrance requirements are completed, the university has 48 hours to put the athlete into the portal. The athlete will receive an email once their name is officially entered, essentially making them a free agent and open for communication. All of this must be concluded during the designated 60-day transfer window for gymnastics, which begins the day after championship selections are announced—this season, the transfer window started on March 21 and will end on May 19.

If an athlete enters the portal after the closing date, they could face consequences, including having to sit out a semester. Elsadek recalled this situation happening to a former teammate this season, forcing her to train at home for the fall semester before joining her new team in January.

Once a coach goes into the portal to find an athlete, they are provided with immediate information: the athlete’s name, NCAA ID number, current year, and portal status. An athlete’s portal status can be one of three options, active, withdrawn, or matriculated. Withdrawn means they have decided to stay at their institution, and matriculated means they have gone through the portal process and were successful in locating another school. Once a coach clicks on the athlete’s name, they are provided their contact information and can begin the recruitment process.

The Recruitment Process

As coaches begin to reach out to athletes, they use multiple methods. Angeny, Elsadek, and Roland recalled receiving text messages, video calls, and phone calls from various coaches, a far cry from the initial recruiting process they experienced, where coaches were not allowed to text until an athlete’s junior year of high school. The biggest part of the process for the athletes was making sure their voices were heard.

“A lot of it is advocating for yourself,” Roland said. “Coming from a Division II school, I had to be more of an advocate for myself because they don’t really look at Division II schools when you’re in the transfer portal.”

Elsadek agreed, stating that she sent emails to every school she was interested in to advocate for herself, and each time she got an offer from a school, it gave her a sense of confidence. “The first time I got something… I’ve never felt so good about myself. I know I have self-worth outside of gymnastics, but in that moment, I didn’t know if I would ever find anything, and people just made you feel so good.”

Recruiting a transfer as a coach is similar to recruiting a freshman. The same rules go back into play. Depending on the transfer, coaches can use different resources that are available, including their current athletes. Farden recalled when Brenner was looking to transfer, he sought opinions from Jaylene Gilstrap, Grace McCallum, and Abby Paulson, who had all competed with Brenner in club gymnastics.

Similarly, LSU head coach Jay Clark hears rumblings from his athletes toward the end of season, but he also relies on his staff members to update him on names they might be interested in. “Garrett [Griffeth] looks at the portal every day, and he’ll text me every time he sees a name that he thinks we may potentially have interest in,” he noted.

“[The transfer portal] is a chance for us to immediately impact our roster,” Griffeth stated when asked about when he chooses to recruit a transfer in the portal. “You know what you’re bringing in in your freshman class and the roster you currently have, [so] you evaluate what holes you still have and maybe there’s a way that you can bring in one or two pieces.” Once an athlete has indicated they are interested in the institution, they can begin the process of scheduling an official visit.

Taking Official Visits

Until the recent rule change, transfers were only allowed to take five official visits, just like underclassmen. When choosing their five visits, the athletes take a number of factors into consideration, but ultimately it comes down to what schools an athlete sees themself at. The official visit process can be different for transfer student-athletes because they are more familiar with what to expect in college and on a team.

“You’re so young when we get recruited, [and] you don’t realize that this is a business. [Teams showed me] everything that’s amazing, and I got to read between the lines,” Georgia fifth-year Josie Angeny stated.

Each team has special touches that they use to make each transfer feel welcome, such as decorating their hotel room or introducing special guests. Angeny recalled meeting Georgia great Brandie Jay on her official visit, a gymnast she admired when she was a teenager.

Official visits for transfers are an expedited process. Griffeth serves as the recruiting coordinator for LSU and helps schedule official visits. A high school recruit that visits with the Tigers gets 48 hours to visit with all the pageantry a college can offer, but due to the quickness of the decision, a transfer’s process has to be sped up. “You have to hit the highlights,” Griffeth explained. “These girls are trying to see four to five schools in a couple of weeks, and they’re trying to make a decision quickly.”

Griffeth says the biggest thing he does when preparing for a transfer’s official visit is to do his homework. He finds out their likes and interests, academic goals, and potential living options before the athlete arrives. Once they arrive, they go through the official visit just like a freshman recruit does. Clark noted that while visits typically happen in the fall when football season is in full swing, most transfers visit in the spring, so he has to get creative to create a memorable experience for the athlete. 

The Decision and Announcement

Once an athlete has finished their official visits, it’s time to make their choice of which school they will attend. Choosing the final destination is a decision that is just as hard as initially entering the portal. “Saying no [to the other schools] was the hardest day. They treated you so well, and you just wanted to make them happy because they made you feel amazing,” Elsadek stated. “But, you couldn’t make everyone happy. People were going to get hurt.”

When an athlete makes their transfer decision, they must be admitted to their new school academically, and then the new university’s compliance office will update their status from active to matriculated. Some athletes make the decision to publicly announce their entrance into the transfer portal and others keep it quiet, only announcing once they have made their decision. 

Transfer announcements as typically seen in mainstream sports have found their way to gymnastics in recent years. This offseason, gymnasts like Lucy Stanhope, Jillian Hoffman, and Savannah Schoenherr have all announced their entrance into the transfer portal, bringing transparency to an area of college gymnastics that hasn’t always been present.

“It’s becoming more open, and you actually know what’s out there and what’s happening. It helps younger people coming up to see that there are offers out there,” Angeny said. Unfortunately, being open on social media does have its consequences. “People are so nasty!” Elsadek shared, recalling the backlash following her transfer announcement. “[They said] why would they recruit her? She’s going to get a 9.400 on every event.”

What Still Needs to Change?

While transfer rules have changed over the last few years, there are still things that need to occur to make the process easier for student-athletes. Angeny believes that universities should take the time to be transparent about the portal process, from the rules and regulations to how NIL deals could be affected. “[Now,] you have to go looking for it, or you get the wrong information easily,” she said. Farden noted that Utah does educate their athletes on the transfer portal upon their arrival at the university. Having an NCAA-wide policy, though, could clear up potential confusion.

Another rule that has caused controversy between mainstream sports and gymnastics is clarity with the one-time transfer rule. Getting the exception this rule can put eligibility in question depending on how long it takes to grant it. Roland recalled that when she and teammate Caitlin Gray transferred to Temple, they didn’t get the OK to compete until two days before their first meet due to confusion surrounding their eligibility.

“At this point in our lives, we just want to compete,” Roland said. “We just want to be on a team that feels like our home. If you transfer, you should be allowed to compete if you put in the time because you’re being recruited for a reason.”

Elsadek agreed with limiting confusion on the one-time transfer rule, saying she didn’t agree with gymnastics being restricted when other sports have more freedom. Recent changes to transfer rules for undergraduates allow for second-time transfers due to injuries or exigent circumstances that force an athlete to transfer and may help remove some of that uncertainty and confusion.

Recent NIL legislation has also added fuel to the fire when it comes to the transfer portal. “Some teams out there are able to accommodate extra gymnasts on their team through NIL,” Clark said. “I’m worried that it becomes like a bidding war [and] that the NIL and the collectives and the things that exist now could drive that and you wind up in a sort of pay-for-play situation.” He believes that the NCAA should require some sort of documentation for an athlete’s transfer so an athlete cannot leave without attempting to reconcile the situation in some way.

For gymnastics, the transfer portal has been a source of confusion but also a new beginning for many athletes. As it works toward becoming a normal part of the sport, being open about the process and acknowledging its existence may make it easier for athletes to go through the portal.

“If coaches can wrap their head around the fact that sometimes employment doesn’t work, sometimes your four years at that school is not going to work…” Farden stated. “Life is short. Time flies by whether you’re having fun or not. If that’s what your [athlete’s] heart desires, I’m supportive of it.”

READ THIS NEXT: Tracking 2023-24 Transfers 

Article by Savanna Whitten 

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  1. Typical Jay Clark, very against letting women do whatever it is they want. Can’t imagine how anyone would want to be coached by him.

    1. Uhhhhh. what are you talking about?
      LSU has some of the best recruits coming in the next few years (depending on Olympics deferral) including elites Amari Drayton, Zoe Miller, Konnor McClain, Lexi Zeiss, Kailin Cho, and Kaliya Lincoln.
      Additionally, both Kai Rivers and Alyona Shchennikova have announced doing their 5th year at LSU.
      Cammy Hall (Utah) and Alexis Jeffrey (UCLA) used the transfer portal to transfer to LSU.
      Finally, none of his athletes have entered the transfer portal.

      Clearly these women and the other athletes at LSU DO want to be coached by him.

      You have a biased opinion of him.

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