That’s the script for a typical night on the Gymternet, the term commonly used to describe this tightknit online community. But Friday’s two-hour flurry of tweets came amid a global pandemic that shuttered sports, across leagues and levels, throughout the country.
Once the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night after a player tested positive for the novel coronavirus, the U.S. sports landscape was upended by similar decisions, including the NCAA’s cancellation of all winter and spring championship events. That meant the end of gymnastics season, which had some senior nights scheduled for this weekend before conference championships were to begin a week later. Gymnasts rarely continue in the sport after college, so for seniors, the NCAA’s two-sentence announcement Thursday left them grappling with abrupt endings to their careers.
The nation has a public health crisis to fight, and the issues of sports fans are minimal in comparison. But an undeniable void exists. From January until the end of April, college gymnastics fills Friday evenings and the weekends for its loyal following — until this week left an empty slate.
Thirty-two minutes after the NCAA’s announcement, a well-known personality in the gymnastics community who goes by the online moniker of Uncle Tim tweeted: “So, which classic gymnastics meet are we going to watch in unison tomorrow night at 7pm ET / 4 pm PT (proper NCAA time)?”
Fans responded with suggestions. GymCastic, a popular gymnastics podcast, finalized and disseminated details: At 7 p.m., the time college meets frequently start, fans would click the same YouTube link and watch the 2016 NCAA championships. The execution of the watch-along exemplified the essence of the Gymternet. It’s small enough for everyone to rally around a single idea but filled with the passion needed to commit to a plan. It’s an inclusive community, previously connected through blogs and message boards before migrating to Twitter, where many still go by pseudonyms.
Once Jessica O’Beirne, the host of GymCastic, saw Uncle Tim’s tweet, she said she thought: “Oh, this is such a good idea. This will so ease the pain right now and also let gymnasts know that their careers live forever, even if the end of their careers was not something that was anticipated and it was abrupt.”
The YouTube video of the meet, originally posted four years ago, added close to 700 views in the hours after 7 p.m. About 40 fans on Twitter engaged in real time using the hashtag #GymNerdSpirit. Fans wanted something that resembled normalcy, and this helped. They reminisced about their favorite gymnasts and moments that had slipped from memory.
“I already feel so much better,” a fan tweeted by the time teams had finished one routine.
Uncle Tim — he said he chose his online moniker because it rhymes with gym — is a 36-year-old from San Francisco who asked that his full name not be used to maintain his persona on the Gymternet. He chose the 2016 national championships for Friday’s watch-along based on Twitter suggestions and because he said, “It felt like it would be a little too painful for people to watch the 2017 NCAA championships, where a lot of the seniors [whose careers just ended] were freshmen.”
The seniors who missed out on their final postseason were among the best to compete in college. The group includes Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols and UCLA’s Kyla Ross, who were both chasing the record for the most perfect-10 scores in NCAA history. They finished their careers tied for fourth with 22 apiece.
Among this year’s seniors are Olympic gold medalists (Ross and UCLA teammate Madison Kocian) and world champions (Nichols and Sabrina Vega of Georgia). There are numerous gymnasts who competed at the elite level, so fans followed the careers of those athletes from the time they were middle-schoolers. There are gymnasts who came forward publicly during their college careers as survivors of sexual abuse.
“We’re a very tightknit and passionate community,” said Susie Butler, a web developer in the Seattle area who re-watched the competition Friday. “We care about the sport a lot, both the athletes for their athletic accomplishments but them as people as well.”
The Gymternet community is driven by fans who care deeply about the sport — not an individual team or specific athletes. Allegiances and favorites exist, but gymnastics doesn’t foster as much division as other sports.
“The Gymternet has really always had to bond and always has had to work together,” O’Beirne said, explaining how even with increased coverage in recent years, gymnastics still isn’t readily accessible on TV or in media. ”… There’s a kind of closeness in this community, I think, that other sports don’t have to have because it’s easy for them to be fans. And to be a gymnastics fan, it’s not easy still.”
That togetherness enabled the joint re-watch of a meet most watched live years ago. The idea didn’t need a mainstream television network to propel it forward. It needed only a tweet, a YouTube link and some fans eager to watch.
“I love that organic community,” said Meredith Groom, who lives in Dallas and had tickets for this year’s national championships, which would have been held in Fort Worth. “It’s this genuine connection on the Internet, and I don’t see it a lot of other places.”
So Groom and the others watched and engaged on Twitter, strangers bound by their daily appreciation of a sport that’s typically considered niche outside the Olympics. Some fans watching tweeted about how sharing the experience gave them a sense of nervous excitement even though they already knew the result. Oklahoma won the title, followed by LSU and Alabama.
With the sports world on standby, these fans still managed to tweet about celebration dances, floor music, past fantasy gymnastics teams, and skills with exceptional technique.
During the re-watch, Uncle Tim tweeted: “In the midst of social distancing, sometimes, you just need to hear [ESPN commentator] Bart Conner exclaim, “WOW!” And remember that there is still joy in this world.”
As Oklahoma’s gymnasts celebrated and the YouTube video reached its end, those who had watched tweeted their thanks — “for taking this Friday night that would’ve been so lonely and instead making it so special,” one wrote, and for “giving us some joy when the world is a little overwhelming right now,” another added. Then some suggested future competitions to re-watch, because they know this world without gymnastics and without live sports will temporarily become the norm.
“We can’t change the devastating fate of the gymnasts who have been training for the NCAA gymnastics [meets],” Uncle Tim said, “but the spirit of the gymnastics community doesn’t have to have that same fate.”