Corrinne Tarver stands on the sidelines

The True Impact of HBCU Gymnastics

Almost two years ago, on Feb. 11, 2022, Fisk University announced it would be the first Historically Black College or University to implement a women’s gymnastics program. On Jan. 14, 2023, Talladega College in Alabama announced it would start the second HBCU women’s gymnastics program, with the intention of competing during the 2024 season. Now, with just a week left to go before the 2024 season begins, Fisk and Talladega are gearing up to continue their historic runs as the first two HBCU gymnastics programs. 

These two programs have both been able to get off the ground quickly and were set to begin competing less than a year after the introduction of the program was announced. For both schools, this was made possible with the help of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, an organization that has been laying the groundwork for the introduction of gymnastics on HBCU campuses for years.

BGDG is an organization focused on increasing diversity in gymnastics and acrobatics. The organization has been instrumental in promoting participation among young Black gymnasts at all levels of the sport. It was the catalyst behind the implementation of the two HBCU programs, according to Founder Derrin Moore.

Founded in 2015, BGDG has been working behind the scenes to make HBCU gymnastics a reality for almost a decade. After years of hard work, their goal almost came to fruition in June of 2020, when Grambling State University in Louisiana reached out about starting a gymnastics program. By July of 2021, major headway had been made toward making an announcement. Although initially the Southwestern Athletic Conference member school wasn’t on BGDG’s list, the university quickly emerged as a contender for the historic program.

“Grambling was actually the first school to reach out to us,” Moore said. “They are a D-I school, but still weren’t on our list because geographically, it just didn’t look the best as far as where collegiate gymnastics is already. … They reached out to us first, and that was when we had an influx of attention. If you know HBCUs, then you know Grambling, so Grambling reached out first, and everybody from like Ebony to USA Today was reaching out about that collaboration.”

Ultimately, the plans at Grambling State fell through due to a number of staffing changes within the athletic department that required the school’s more immediate focus. However, a few months later, Moore was contacted by another school looking to start a gymnastics program, this time a small NAIA school in Nashville called Fisk University. Similar to the case with Grambling, Fisk was not initially on BGDG’s list. Originally, BGDG started their quest by reaching out to HBCUs that competed at the NCAA Division I level, but with Fisk interested, the pieces started to fall into place to make history.

According to Moore, Fisk was interested in seeing how the addition of a gymnastics program could increase its enrollment. At the same time, a young gymnast familiar with Moore and BGDG set another piece of development in motion.

Jordynn Cromartie, she used to compete in Texas. She’s now on the team at Fisk,” Moore said. “Her uncle, they met for Thanksgiving, and the uncle asked Jordynn where she was going to go to compete or where she was going to go to school. She was a senior in high school, and she named all these schools, and he asked why no HBCUs, and she told him that there were no gymnastics programs at HBCUs, and he couldn’t believe it. And so he’s a Fisk alumni, and so he is who actually reached out to us.”

After seeing the attention Fisk received after announcing its program, Talladega, a small, southern private school like Fisk, saw the benefits a gymnastics program brought and reached out to Moore almost exactly a year later, around Thanksgiving of  2022.

For both schools, BGDG played a major role in helping with logistics behind the scenes. The organization helped with finding coaches, locating places for the teams to practice, drumming up donor interest with alumni, connecting the schools and potential recruits, along with educating those at the top about what is required to run a gymnastics program and how it differs from more mainstream sports like basketball and baseball.

All of their support allowed Fisk and Talladega to be able to begin competing less than a year after the individual programs were announced.

Fisk, in its first year of competition, drew an immense amount of media attention, both inside and outside of the Black community. As the Bulldogs traveled from state to state competing, HBCU alumni and supporters followed to cheer on the team.

“Everywhere we went, we were finding (support), and it wasn’t just Fisk alum,” Fisk head coach Corrinne Tarver said. “There were people in their Spelman gear, in their Morehouse, in their Tougaloo. You name it, Grambling. It didn’t matter what their school was. They were all out in their HBCU gear, saying, ‘We’re supporting an HBCU team.’”

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing in Nashville. After being announced as the head coach at Fisk, Tarver was also tapped to be the school’s Athletic Director. In addition to complications from the program’s quick start, she had to balance her commitment to the gymnastics program with the operations of the school’s various other teams. Tarver’s responsibilities as athletic director took her away from her team so much that she felt like she was playing catchup to get to know and bond with her own athletes throughout the 2022 fall semester.

Even with the challenges both roles created, there were some positives with Tarver being the head of both the gymnastics program and the athletic department. The access she was granted made it easier at times to help her team secure what resources they needed to be successful.

“It was a lot to handle, but there were definitely benefits because I was in the room, and I had a straight line to be able to walk up to the President’s office, or wherever needs to be, and say, ‘Hey, this is not good. We need to make these changes. We need to start doing this. This is a problem,’ so it allowed me to have that voice to be able to get what we need, and it allowed me to get through a lot of red tape because Fisk, they had no clue what they were really doing when they added gymnastics. We’re not like any other sport, and they had no idea whatsoever what they were getting themselves into.”

When the time came, Tarver reached out and formed a connection with Talladega’s head coach Aja Sims-Fletcher, to try to help prepare her for what was to come as an HBCU head coach.

Sims-Fletcher had been interested in contributing to HBCU gymnastics since Fisk’s announcement. With limited prior coaching experience at the collegiate level, she wasn’t sure what a role would look like for her, she just knew that she wanted to be involved. When Fisk announced its program her personal timeline, and the required move to Nashville, didn’t match up for her to be involved in the inaugural season. Talladega’s location in Alabama, however, made the decision to lead the team a no-brainer for Sims-Fletcher.

With such a short timeline between the programs’ announcements, the hiring of head coaches, and the beginning of preseason training, recruiting athletes quickly became the number one priority for both Tarver and Sims-Fletcher. Setting the tone by bringing in a healthy mix of transfers and freshmen would create the foundation for the program in future seasons.

For Tarver, it started with now-sophomore Hailey Clark out of Florida. Clark first reached out to BGDG following the program’s announcement. They told her to contact Tarver, and from there, the two stayed in touch throughout the course of Clark’s senior season, resulting in an offer and commitment.

“I was kind of in a little dilemma,” Clark said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to even continue doing gymnastics in college. I had been accepted to several schools, and I was actually looking forward to going to Florida A&M University. That’s where the majority of my family has graduated from, and so I was actually looking to go there, and so when Fisk had made their announcement, my mom was like, ‘Still just apply. Apply to Fisk. You never know, and it’s an opportunity that you just can’t say no to if you do get an offer from there.’”

Similarly, Sims-Fletcher’s first recruit, freshman Kyrstin Johnson out of Baltimore, also had other collegiate plans before committing to Talladega. Initially, Johnson was set on West Virginia. Then, following Fisk’s announcement, Nashville drew her attention. Ultimately, after a conversation with Sims-Fletcher, Johnson was sold on heading down to Alabama for the next four years.

In its inaugural season, Fisk faced many challenges. The lack of a home arena required the Bulldogs to travel for every meet. They also dealt with various injuries, sometimes struggling to find five competitors for each event. Despite the hard times, the Bulldogs were backed by gymnastics fans around the country who didn’t care whether Fisk won or lost.

“I remember [Tarver] saying a couple times that she didn’t know that we would get that kind of recognition or that kind of media attention,” Moore said. “But we knew it. Brown Girls knew it  … for sure that our people would get behind it 100%. Even if it wasn’t a D-I school, we just wanted to see an HBCU, and then after seeing the hype that Grambling got saying that they might start a team, we knew that if an HBCU said they would start a team that it was going to go crazy.”

Now, as Fisk prepares for year two, the program is on track to keep moving forward and improving. With a significantly healthier squad, Tarver raved about the amount of depth her team contains on almost every event. More depth means the propensity for higher scores, and Tarver is hoping for just that. She has even given her team the challenge of scoring a 195 or better this season.

As for the athletes, they are also looking forward to a new season, and are eager to leave behind some of the challenges that came with being a student-athlete for a first-year program.

“I think we are a lot more bonded than we were last year, especially with the incoming class, our new freshmen,” Clark said. “I think we all, as a team, really get along a lot more than we did last year, and that’s something I think that just comes with any first-year program, so I’m really glad that we’re going into this year really bonded, and I think we’re also looking forward to cleaning up routines and being on top of our game to really show what we can do.”

As Talladega prepares for its first season, Sims-Fletcher is dealing with challenges of her own as a first-time head coach with a brand new team. Above it all, however, she is excited for the gymnastics world to see her team and see how the Tornadoes have created their own brand of gymnastics with “Black girl magic.” This sentiment is even shared by the members of her squad.

“(It’s) powerful because in gymnastics, you don’t really get to see that side, like an HBCU side of gymnastics,” Johnson said. “So now that we’re able to do that, we get to show off some of that Black girl flavor. I think that’s just really powerful in itself, and I can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve came up with.”

Behind everything that Talladega has worked through this preseason is the team’s mantra, B.T.U., which stands for bigger than us. The slogan serves as a reminder to both Sims-Fletcher and the gymnasts that what they accomplish this season represents not just them but a whole demographic of young gymnasts.

“It’s for that young little girl that maybe didn’t get the opportunity to do gymnastics at an HBCU or even just reminding them that we’re continuing to provide more opportunity for our sport,” Sims-Fletcher said. “So every time they go out on the floor, they have no regrets. They go all out and just enjoy our sport. We get to do this. We are blessed with the talent. So this is bigger than us. We are performing for more than just ourselves. It’s our whole team. It’s our whole community. It’s our love for the sport.”

The introduction of HBCU gymnastics has opened doors for Black coaches and athletes alike to have the opportunity to spend time in environments with their peers. They can fully express themselves through their hair, their demeanor, and their sport. This level of comfort also carries over to their academics and interactions with other students, giving them the full HBCU experience.

“It’s the camaraderie, really seeing how much each and every single one of us care about one another, whether that’s inside or outside of the gym,” Clark said. “And even as far as my classmates, how much everyone cares about one another, and that’s another thing that makes HBCUs so special is how much even your professors, the administrators, how much they care about you as an individual. Here, you’re not just another student. You’re not part of a statistic. You are a student to be here, and they care about you and where you’re going and even what you’re going through.”

With two programs already in place, Moore and her organization are not stopping. In fact, a third school is already in contact with Moore and BGDG about adding a program. While Moore believes that, for now, it will likely continue to be smaller schools that reach out, adding more programs is a step in the right direction.

“We want more. We want more schools,” Moore said. “Our goal for HBCU gymnastics is to just keep going. We definitely want a D-I school, or two would be nice. We also would love love love to have some type of HBCU gymnastics conference or some kind of championship competition that’s just for HBCUs, regardless if they’re NAIA or NCAA. That’s a lofty goal sometime later on.”

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Article by Tia Reid


  1. Did FISK fix the bullying situations that led to Leeiah Davis leaving the program last season?

    Both the coach and athletes were bullying Leeiah to the point that she had to leave the university completely.

    I fear it got swept under the rug due to being a new program and of course an HBCU school.

    I guess because she isn’t a high profile athlete like Kara Eaker that everyone pretended like nothing happened and they moved on.

    Sad. I expected better.

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