Dynasties are nothing new in the world of college athletics. In collegiate gymnastics, many fans are familiar with schools such as UCLA, Utah, Alabama, and Georgia, as well as the legendary figures that pass through these programs.
But what happens when you look past Division I? For every program like Utah or Alabama, there’s one at the DII or DIII level that is dominant in its own right. For the last 30 years, Texas Woman’s University has led the pack in the DII and at USAG nationals, establishing itself as a decades-long precedent for excellence.
For those unfamiliar with USAG nationals and how it fits into the larger collegiate gymnastics picture, here’s a small explainer. Teams that are eligible for USAG nationals are those with fewer than seven and a half full scholarships. This includes the Ivies, service academies, DII, DIII, and a handful of other DI schools.
“I’m proud to say that basically up until I (retired), at the national championships, we were either first or second since that year we won,” former head coach Frank Kudlac said. “I think we were part of the reason that Division II got better because we didn’t set a ceiling for us. We kept getting better and better.”
Kudlac never intended to build a dynasty at TWU. He never even thought he would end up in Texas. Born in New York and raised in Pennsylvania, Kudlac originally planned to serve as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, West Chester University, previously West Chester State College. When the opportunity to supervise a gymnastics club at TWU was proposed to him in 1978, he was initially disinterested. It wasn’t until he got to Texas that he decided to accept the position.
“It was like April in Philadelphia, 60 degrees and raining. I left, and I arrived in Texas. It was 85 and sunny,” Kudlac said. “It was beautiful, and of course, I was… 21 years old, so I was like, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’ I’d never been out here. I’d never really traveled this far, and then all of a sudden, people were very friendly, too.”
Kudlac took the job and spent a year recruiting athletes on campus. One year later, Kudlac was the head coach of the TWU gymnastics team, then a part of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Following the dissolution of the AIAW, TWU joined the NCAA for the 1983 season as a DII program.
During this period, Kudlac and his team slowly gained resources. They moved from a facility in which they were required to set up and tear down equipment for each training session to a more permanent home across the street. The second-story gym, known as the Dance Gymnastics Building, is still used by the Pioneers to this day.
As a DII school, TWU was able to recruit gymnasts using its reputation and academic scholarship money. Due to funding constraints, Kudlac focused his recruiting in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The program eventually received enough money to fund a single athletic scholarship, but Kudlac continued to rely on academic aid to bring Texas-based athletes to TWU.
“They started giving me a little bit of scholarship money, like one scholarship, that we were able to break up,” Kudlac said. “In Division II, you could break it up as many times as you want. … So I was able to combine academic money with athletic money and recruit a little bit better.”
With better talent, better facilities, and better support, TWU began to rise in the ranks. The Pioneers went from seventh at USAG Nationals in 1989 to second in 1992. In 1993, it all came together for Kudlac when TWU won its first USAG national championship.
“‘91-’92, we were second, and I believe we lost by like five-tenths of a point,” Kudlac said. “And that was the motivational basis behind us making that leap…we finally realized that we could possibly win this thing if we just did a little better job in the gym and keep our nose to the grindstone and work a little harder… that team believed that year that they were good enough to win a national championship, and we won that.”
Following its championship run in 1993, TWU went on to win the next three USAG national titles, becoming the first team to four-peat at the USAG level.
Once again, with more success came more recognition from around the country, leading to better recruiting. Despite still being somewhat underfunded–fielding just four scholarships instead of the fully funded six–TWU brought in athletes who maintained its championship caliber.
One such athlete was Kim Koenig from Alvin, Texas. Koenig started with the program in the 1995-1996 season and won two USAG national championships as a Pioneer. Koenig herself qualified for NCAA Regionals in each of her first three seasons at TWU. She is a seven-time USAG individual national champion and a 17-time USAG All-American. She is the first and only Pioneer to record a perfect 10.0, doing so on beam twice at the 1999 USAG Nationals during her senior season. In 2008, Koenig was inducted into the TWU Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I just worked on her confidence level her first couple of years,” Kudlac said. “She was very talented but didn’t really believe in herself, and all of a sudden, a light bulb clicked, and she goes, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good, and I can do this.’ And sure enough, she just kept getting better and better and better and started believing more and more in herself. It was more of the mental side that made her the athlete that she was.”
Throughout Kudlac’s 33-year tenure, TWU won nine USAG national championships. In addition to developing talented athletes year in and year out, Kudlac and his various staff members developed a culture that propelled the Pioneers to success. As new recruits joined the program, the bonds strengthened, and TWU continued to win.
“That was one of the secret sauces of our success, that we had a system of traditions and belief and having each other’s back and working together as a team and not really having any superstars,” Kudlac said. “Even though you might’ve been a superstar, you were just as valuable as the person moving the board and just as valuable as the person filming, and everyone had a role, and everyone believed in what they did to the best of their ability.”
Though he still coaches at his private gym in Denton, Texas, Kudlac decided to retire from coaching at TWU in 2011, citing his desire to spend more time with his family and his young children. Although the decision to step away was tough, Kudlac believed that then Associate Head Coach Lisa Bowerman was ready to take over the program. Similar to Kudlac, Bowerman had ended up coaching at TWU by chance when, in 2005, her club gymnastics coach, Scott Cusimano, recommended she look into being a graduate assistant for Kudlac.
“I had known of TWU’s gymnastics program and of Frank growing up because, actually, my club coach in St. Louis, Scott Cusimano, he got his coaching start at TWU with Frank many years before,” Bowerman said. “So we always kind of had that connection, but even when I was coming for grad school, that was just my plan to come to grad school, and when I was talking to Scott about my decision, and he said, ‘Well, have you talked to Frank? Perhaps he has a graduate assistantship… that you could do…some coaching while you’re in school.’”
Bowerman quickly moved up the ranks, going from graduate assistant to assistant coach to associate head coach, ultimately landing the head coach position. She was a part of the coaching staff for two USAG titles before winning three more in the head coach position. Bowerman points to Kudlac’s tutelage and ability to teach as part of the reason why she was able to adjust as well as she did to being the new head coach.
“Just having given me a lot of opportunities in a lot of different roles, and even as a graduate assistant, I feel like I always made myself available, and asked a lot of questions, and was always around, so I got to see a lot of different aspects of the program, from recruiting to administration to running camps to practice plans,” Bowerman said. “He gave me a lot of opportunity to learn… he really did prepare me well.”
As expected from the head coaching change, the program experienced several down years. Taking over a program from such an accomplished coach is not an easy task. Luckily for Bowerman, Kudlac was always around to offer advice when needed. The two continued to foster their relationship throughout the early stages of Bowerman’s tenure, with both emphasizing how helpful it was that Kudlac, regardless of his success, supported Bowerman in taking the program in the direction she thought best.
In 2017, after eight seasons away from the spotlight, TWU won its 10th USAG national championship as a program and the first with Bowerman at the helm.
“I think in 2017, when we won our first one with me as a head coach, we had been working and waiting and trying to win that 10th championship for so long,” Bowerman said. “Just that alone, the persistence and all we had been through as a program to get to that point, made that one really special in 2017…
“Our season prior, in 2016, was one of the greatest lows that I felt like I had had as a head coach when our team didn’t make team finals at USAG championships for the first time in school history, and I, at that time, as still a pretty new head coach, felt like I had just really failed the program, and our alumni, and our tradition, and everything that we had done up to that point, and so to come back in 2017 and win that championship was really a huge accomplishment and source of pride.”
The Pioneers repeated as USAG champions in 2018 before winning their most recent title in 2022.
In her time as head coach, Bowerman has kept and built upon many of the program’s traditions that started under Kudlac while adding some of her own. One similarity Bowerman and Kudlac are proud of is their emphasis on academic achievement alongside athletic prowess.
“We were pretty high up in the academic rankings as well through my time, and then it kept getting better and better, and I know Lisa, I think, was second this year in the NCAA academic rankings,” Kudlac said. “I know that they won a couple years ago when they won the national championship and the academic championship. I’m proud of her for that, and believing that recruiting not only good gymnasts but good students, which bodes to the Division II philosophy of student-athlete. Student comes first, and we’ve always had that at TWU.”
With a storied legacy preceding them, TWU’s gymnasts continue adding their names to the history books. Sophomore Brooke Ferrari became the latest in a string of TWU gymnasts to make an impact right away, earning WCGA All-American honors on bars last season.
For the upcoming season, Ferrari has set her goals even higher, hoping to record TWU’s highest bars score in program history. Just like her success last season, support from coaches and staff will be the key to getting over the hump.
“The coaches really supported me and pushed me through the hard times when I was struggling, and so did my teammates,” Ferrari said. “It was really amazing getting to work with a group of people that want the best for you and are not going to let you settle for less than what you deserve, so it was really helpful to have that group of people behind me. ”
One of those teammates is graduate student and 2022 USAG vault national champion Daisy Woodring. Woodring has been part of the motor pushing the Pioneers forward for the last four years. Not only does Woodring exude pride about being a part of TWU’s program, but she also prioritizes making sure that the Pioneers’ culture continues to pass from incoming class to incoming class.
“I remember being a freshman because it really wasn’t that long ago, and I want to use everything that I learned, the good and the bad, to help them, of course, knowing that every person is different,” Woodring said. “Things that I struggled with they may not struggle with and vice versa, but really just being a resource for them, knowing that I probably have advice on something because I’ve walked through it the same, and I want to be someone that they feel comfortable going to.”
With such a longstanding legacy, it can be hard to imagine what else is left for the Pioneers to accomplish. Their 12 USAG national titles are the most by any program at that level. Despite not winning USAG Nationals in 2023, TWU is setting its sights on the next level for the 2024 season: NCAA Regionals.
“Our number one greatest goal this year is to be in the top 36 as a team and to qualify to NCAA postseason,” Bowerman said. “It is something that, obviously, is a big goal, but I know that this team is capable of that. They’re committed to it. They’ve put in the work. They’ve bought into understanding what it takes, and it certainly won’t be easy, but it’s something that we are committed to.”
Woodring echoed similar sentiments, prioritizing the team’s goals in her final season rather than focusing on her individual ones.
“There’s a lot of personal goals you can set for yourself,” Woddring said. “But putting the team first is really first priority and doing it together because I know if we are all bought in as a team, then there will be individual results, but ultimately I’m not as concerned with those as much as the team’s success and the team goals.”
Whether TWU meets its lofty goals in the 2024 season or not, its storied history speaks for itself. The Pioneers was one of the most accomplished programs when helmed by Kudlac, one of the most accomplished coaches in NCAA gymnastics history.
Kudlac, a 10-time NCAA Division II Coach of the Year winner, was inducted into the West Chester University Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2022, he was inducted into the TWU Athletics Hall of Fame. The legacy he created with the program will be remembered for decades to come, but what will stick with Kudlac most is the connections he made with the people he spent time with along the way.
“I’m very proud of the accomplishments,” Kudlac said. “I mean, the championships were wonderful, obviously. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to win all those national championships, but the memories that we made as coach and athletes, those are priceless. I guess the word proud is the word I would use, and I can’t credit me for all our success. I credit my assistant coaches and the athletes and believing in me and the system that we established to be successful.”
Article by Tia Reid