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Opinion ‘March Gladness’: College gymnastics is having an amazing moment

Gymnast Sunisa Lee of Auburn University competes on the floor during a meet against LSU at a sold out Neville Arena on Feb. 10 in Auburn, Ala. (Stew Milne/Getty Images)
3 min

March Madness basketball is not the only college sport dishing out wild and wonderful feats this spring. College gymnastics is having an equally thrilling season that’s about to culminate in surprising twists and turns — literally. The NCAA regionals begin this week.

There’s a reason arenas across the country have been sold out for women’s gymnastics this year: Records are getting broken weekly and perfect 10s are back in style. (One recent meet included nine different routines that garnered perfect scores.) Florida gymnast Trinity Thomas has earned so many of those coveted “10s” that she’s on the verge of breaking the all-time NCAA gymnastics record of 28. She’s up against fierce competition. Four other women competing in the postseason are U.S. Olympians from the 2020 Tokyo team, including all-around champion Sunisa Lee of Auburn University who has plenty of 10s on her résumé, too. Olympian Jade Carey, the floor exercise gold medalist, is already on the list of perfect 10 leaders in college gymnastics after a mere two seasons at Oregon State. Several other competitors are veterans of World Championship teams.

The talent level this season is world-class. In fact, many athletes are likely to leave college teams after the April 13-15 NCAA championships to train for the 2024 Olympics. In past seasons, many top female gymnasts went to UCLA to train with famed former coach Valorie Kondos Field. But she retired in 2019, and this new generation of athletes has spread out around the country, creating one of the most competitive seasons in memory, in which many teams have a legitimate shot at the top prize.

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But what really makes college gymnastics worth watching right now is the joy. Athletes dance and tumble to songs by Dr. Dre, Salt-N-Pepa and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” Teammates and fans in the stands mimic some of the dance moves alongside the competitors. When a gymnast ends a routine, the whole team runs out to high-five her. It’s hard not to smile. The joy of this “March Gladness” is contagious.

It’s a noticeable contrast to the Olympics, in which so many young women look thin and exhausted. The world recently learned how Team USA gymnasts endured years of starvation, mental abuse and sexual assault. Star Olympian Simone Biles withdrew from most events at the Tokyo competition to protect her mental and physical health, which was yet another wake-up call about the problems that remain at the elite level.

College gymnasts are clearly having fun. They are also diverse. This season the first women’s team from a Historically Black College and University — Fisk University — competed, and many of the top athletes heading into the postseason are women of color. It’s an encouraging sign for the sport’s future.

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Social media has helped to amplify the stuck landings and superhuman flips. Back in 2019, UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi’s floor routine went viral. As catchy as the routine was, Ohashi pointed out how she almost quit gymnastics because of body shaming and the grueling Olympic training regime — and that the NCAA program revived her love of the sport. Now, TikTok is full of college gymnastics moments — and warnings not to try the stunts at home.

For longtime fans, this is a gymnastics season to remember. For anyone just tuning in, prepare to be amazed.

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