It’s an exciting time of year for gymnastics fans! Athletes are entering the transfer portal, and club-level gymnasts are committing to schools nationwide. Plus, ever since COVID struck in 2020, the offseason also brings fifth-year announcements. As many college sports fans probably know, any athlete who competed in the 2021 season has been granted the opportunity to take a fifth “COVID” year. We’ve already seen a lot of amazing gymnastics from fifth-year gymnasts, but there’s more that goes on behind the scenes than meets the eye to coordinate it.
In 2022, the first year that COVID years went into effect, the NCAA allowed for each team to exceed the 12-scholarship limit that a gymnastics team is usually allowed. But after 2022, the limit on scholarships went back to 12. Because of this, coaches have had to figure out how to allocate their 12 throughout a roster to take into account he possibility of seniors wanting to come back for their fifth year, as well as new recruits coming in.
But before a coach can even begin thinking of which of their gymnasts will stay with the team for another year, the gymnast themself needs to decide whether or not they want to. At Florida, Trinity Thomas, Megan Skaggs, and Alyssa Baumann are just a few notable Gators that took a fifth year. Florida head coach Jenny Rowland likes to put the decision on the gymnasts and lets them bring it up first. “It’s not anything that I want to push,” said Rowland. “I want it to be their idea. I want it to be what they want to do.”
Once a gymnast and her coach have decided that she’ll be taking her fifth year, it’s time to start thinking about whether or not that gymnast will keep her scholarship, if she had one in the first place. For Illinois head coach Nadalie Walsh, it’s all about “honoring who has been here and who has already made an impact.” Walsh thinks it’s very important to reward gymnasts who have made positive contributions to the team by allowing them to keep their scholarship for their fifth year. Gymnasts like Mallory Mizuki and Rachel Borden are worth prioritizing because of their scores and their leadership.
But prioritizing a scholarship for a fifth-year gymnast means that one less scholarship can be given to another member of the team. Gymnastics teams can only give out 12 scholarships, so if a fifth-year keeps hers, there’s one less for someone else. This means that fewer freshmen than usual are receiving scholarships, at least for their first year with the team. But the new athlete-coach communication guidelines have helped coaches juggle this conundrum.
“The recruiting rules really helped us,” said Utah head coach Tom Farden. “You can’t have contact with athletes prior to 11th grade, and I think that’s helped us plan.”
Since Farden know who’s thinking about taking a fifth year before they begin talking to incoming recruits, they know from the beginning whether or not they can offer athletes a scholarship for their freshman year. This means that Utah can easily keep gymnasts like Maile O’Keefe and Jaedyn Rucker on scholarship.
But just because there aren’t enough scholarships for a given freshman to get one for her freshman year doesn’t mean she won’t get one at all. As Nadalie Walsh says “I absolutely just trust that when that scholarship comes available, we’ll replace it with the right athlete.”
While coaches have been doing a good job navigating the fifth-year scholarship situation, some of them still wish they could make some changes. Farden wishes that the scholarship limit could exceed 12 for every year that fifth-years have the opportunity to compete. And like many gymnastics fans across the country, Nadalie Walsh wishes that the 2020 seniors were given a fifth year as well.
Ultimately, COVID years have presented some challenges, but the number of opportunities it’s given to coaches and teams all around the country makes it worth it. Walsh said these bonus years have “made it more rewarding to get another year to invest in the life of a student-athlete.”
“I think it’s just a matter of increased loyalty, and valuing these young women who give so much to the sport,” said Walsh.
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Article by Emily Lockard
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