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From the Experts: The Road to the NCAA

Posted on 5/15/2017
USA Olympic Athletes and NCAA athletics go hand in hand. Last summer, of the 555 competing USA Olympians, 417 represented incoming, current and former NCAA Athletes. First college athletics, then on to the Olympics - makes sense, right? Unless the sport is women's gymnastics where the competition path most often take the athletes to the Olympics or World Championship Events before the age of college eligibility. 

Olympians Elise Ray, Kristen Maloney, Jamie Dantzcher, Tasha Schwikert and Alyssa Beckerman paved the way as they transitioned from the 2000 Sydney games to successful college careers.  In the years since, we’ve been wowed by countless others who have helped to bring college gymnastics to the spotlight.  This year, NCAA media attention spotlighted Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross, UCLA freshman, who were the first Olympic Gold medalists to maintain NCAA eligibility and compete for a college team.

We asked Elise Ray, now Head Coach for the University of Washington, her thoughts on Olympians competing in collegiate gymnastics:

“The increase of Olympians in collegiate gymnastics is outstanding! I’m proud to say I, along with Kristen Maloney and Jamie Dantzcher, were the first Olympians to compete collegiately. So to see so many Olympians (even gold medalists!) choose to continue their career into college also, is incredibly special. It has taken collegiate gymnastics to new heights! “

In 2016 there were 84 Colleges and Universities that offered scholarships in gymnastics.  Those involved in the recruiting process have noticed dramatic change in recent years for aspiring student-athletes.

Tony Gehman, owner of North Stars Gymnastics in New Jersey is no stranger to the NCAA recruitment process.   He and his wife Paula, have successfully placed more than 70 athletes to NCAA gymnastics programs, including Ivy League schools - with 8 athletes signing in 2016 alone.  North Stars even hosts an annual NCAA showcase event where athletes have the opportunity to showcase their talent to an audience of recruiters.  Tony and Paula invest in a future for their athletes.

In a recent chat with Tony, he described how the recruiting process has changed in recent years and the challenges that athletes and their families face in pursuing an athletic career in college.  

“Many colleges and universities seek commitments very early (many times prior to puberty), which is a disadvantage for the colleges and the gymnasts.  Children in the 9th and 10th grades, or earlier, often have no idea what they are looking for in a college.”

The process of getting noticed by a college coach takes some time and effort.  Recruiters are looking at an athlete’s routine start values, consistency in scoring and a passion for the sport that shows in their work ethic.  Athletes prepare a gymnastics resume, sometimes shown via an athlete YouTube page.  

In the recruiting process timing can be tricky.  Although Tony has celebrated many successful college and university matches, he has also seen some talented athletes miss out on opportunity because they peaked in competition confidence and skills past typical recruiting years.  Or, an early signing athlete may earn an early commitment to a major program, then have an injury or hard 2 years and get dropped, leaving them with no scholarship opportunity in other programs who have filled their scholarship slots.  

Elise Ray is also concerned about current recruiting practices:

“Recruiting has changed dramatically!! Unfortunately, not for the better. Colleges are recruiting earlier than ever (as early as 8th grade!) simply to compete with and stay in line with other programs who are doing so. It's awful for the recruits & their families, costing them a lot of money and forcing young gymnasts to make decisions they're too young to make. We, as a coaches association, are trying desperately to stop this trend, and return it to what it used to be: recruiting juniors and seniors in high school. “

The crowds at NCAA Gymnastics events have grown to record numbers and at the center are the talented stars of the show.   NCAA athletes display a level of passion for the sport that shines in their performances-bolstered by the hard work it took to get there.