In NCAA women’s gymnastics, a Texas-sized hole
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Ragan Smith did not lack options when it came to choosing a college, as tends to happen when you’re an elite gymnast with a national title on your resume.
One option was unavailable to Smith. It doesn’t exist.
Texas, the site of this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, the state that’s produced Olympic champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles, the state that has over 20 colleges and universities currently classified as Division I, the state that features some of the most prominent gymnastics programs in the country if not the world, has exactly six women’s gymnastics scholarships available, all of them at Division II Texas Women’s University.
That meant that Smith, who moved from Georgia to the Dallas suburbs as a 13-year-old to train at the gym owned by former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal, had to leave Texas to compete at the Division I level.
“All these great clubs are in Texas, and you would think (the big schools) would have a program,” Smith said. “But they really don’t.”
Things worked out just fine for Smith, now a junior at Oklahoma. She and the Sooners will aim for their fourth national title in eight years on Saturday when they take on Florida, Auburn and Utah at Dickie’s Arena, the opulent facility located less than three miles from the TCU campus.
The Horned Frogs offer 13 varsity women’s sports, including equestrian, rifle and triathlon. Just not gymnastics.
It’s the same at Texas (which offers rowing, among others), Baylor (which has acrobatics and tumbling, a cousin of artistic gymnastics), Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston and Rice and all the rest. Contacted this week by The Associated Press, representatives at Texas and Texas A&M both indicated there are no plans to offer women’s gymnastics as a varsity sport.
While many schools do have student-led gymnastics clubs, they are not affiliated with the athletic department and must do their own fundraising to survive, which means high-level gymnasts like Smith and Auburn senior Drew Watson have to look elsewhere if they want to continue their careers.
Watson grew up in Tyler, Texas, and would have preferred to stay close to home. Instead, she settled in at Auburn, a nine-plus hour drive away, a trip her parents rarely made early in her career.
It was the same for most of her club teammates at Texas East gymnastics. When it came time to go to college, they spread out across the country, from Kentucky to Ohio to Arkansas to Florida.
It’s that way for nearly every top Level 10 or elite gymnast in the Lone Star State. Seven of the eight teams that qualified for the national championships this week had at least one Texas native on their roster, with a handful of others making it as individual qualifiers like Arkansas senior Kennedy Hambrick and 2020 Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles, who moved to the Houston area several years ago to train alongside Biles at World Champions Centre.
Watson just sort of laughs when asked what would happen if one of the major Texas schools took the leap and did what schools like Clemson are doing in adding a program to a sport in the midst of a serious boom.
“It would be a game-changer for sure,” she said.
Albeit an expensive one. There are 12 full scholarships available at Division I women’s gymnastics programs, with a move being made to potentially expand the number to 14. Throw in training, travel, coaching salaries and everything else, and it’s not cheap to launch a competitive team. Add in the ripple effects of Title IX — which requires ” athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated ” — and the math can be tricky.
Still, there is hope in some places that women’s gymnastics can be “revenue neutral.” It’s a model LSU coach Jay Clark hopes his program can reach by the end of the decade, though the Tigers may be the exception. LSU is typically among the national leaders in average attendance and drew an average of 11,691 fans to their five home meets this season, tops in the country.
While adding scholarships could be a hurdle for potential programs to navigate, Clark sees it as a supply and demand issue.
“We haven’t had an increase since 1995 and the pool of talent has grown four-fold,” he said.
He’s not joking. Within the last decade the number of active Level 10 gymnasts — which comprises the vast majority of college athletes — has nearly doubled from 1,600 to nearly 3,100.
Talent that is on display daily inside World Champions Centre, the massive gym Nellie Biles opened in 2015 during the nascent stages of her daughter’s extraordinary career. The gym has produced over a dozen Division I athletes over the last seven years.
“If that opportunity opens up in the state of Texas, I think that will be a gold mine,” Nellie Biles said. “There are so many girls in Texas that are getting recruited by everywhere else. I’m sure UCLA and Alabama are glad we don’t have one.”
Longtime Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler has four Texans on her roster. Her recruiting pitch is a combination of quality — the Sooners are in the finals for the ninth straight time — and proximity to home. Kindler is “shocked” she faces no competition from schools that are arch rivals to Oklahoma in nearly every sport.
“If a D-I program in Texas opened up, they would contend very quickly for national championships,” she said.
It’s not for lack of trying by those in the sport. The Collegiate Gymnastics Growth Initiative was started by the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association to “to promote awareness in the pursuit and addition of new women’s collegiate gymnastics programs across the country.”
The CGGI — which was created in the mid-’90s to “save our (butts)” according to Long Island University head coach Randy Lane — has made several presentations to Texas schools.
“We’ve tried really hard not to push from a standpoint of ‘You have to add,’ because when you do that, they’re not going to,” Lane said. “You have to show them the benefit the program brings. We show we’re one of the top sports when it comes to grade point average, one of the top sports in regards to (Academic Progress Rate).”
Texas Women’s University, which won its 12th title at the Collegiate National Championships last week, could make the jump to Division I, though head coach Lisa Bowerman demurred when asked about it.
“It would be amazing to see happen, but that’s all I can say at the moment,” she said.
The NCAA will continue to have a presence in Texas. The women’s championships are scheduled to remain in Fort Worth through at least 2026. The centralized location is ideal, but there’s also more than a little subliminal advertising going on.
“It’s (the NCAA) wanting to show (Texas), ‘you need to get a program,'” said ESPN analyst and two-time Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner.
For now, athletes like Smith and Watson can take solace in the fact their families don’t have to cross a state line to watch them compete in their biggest meet of the season while Texas club owners wait for recruiting calls to start coming from a familiar area code.
“We’ve got great schools in Texas,” Biles said. “They need to pick that up.”
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