But in the NCAA, the team is sacrosanct. While there is an individual all-around winner at the college level, she isn’t crowned on a dedicated night of competition as is common during the Olympics or world championships. The all-around title is earned during the team qualifications when all of the competitors are focused on getting their team to the Super Six final. In this arrangement, the all-around title is treated as an afterthought.
The emphasis on team translates into a very fun, partylike competitive atmosphere. The gymnasts don’t stand idly on the sidelines as their teammates compete. They yell themselves hoarse. They perform their teammate’s choreography while she dances on the floor, which might be performed to anything, ranging from a Top 40 tune to a classical piece. (In the case of Florida, a “Gator Chop” is choreographed into every floor routine. And every completed exercise is greeted by high-fives and hugs from the coaches. “I get to put on a show every weekend,” Sloan said.
Hong, a gymnast of whom you might’ve been tempted to ask “Why so serious?” during her elite meets, ends her performances at Stanford by high-fiving the first row of the audience after she dismounts and salutes the judges. And then she does the same to her teammates.
“Everything we do is for each other,” Hong noted. “We got each other’s backs.”
After years spent at the club and elite level, where the emphasis is placed on individual achievement, the team format of NCAA competition allows gymnasts to subsume their individual goals to the team ones. Kristen Maloney, an Olympic bronze medalist and two-time national champion, admitted that the UCLA team and coaches helped rekindle her spark for gymnastics. “I think a big part of it was coming into college and falling in love with the sport again, knowing that I have my team around me and I’m doing it for my team,” she said.
The NCAA, however, isn’t filled only with elite gymnasts looking for a graceful exit from the sport or trying to recover from trauma or pain experienced at the international level. Some of the women are Level 10 gymnasts for whom college was always the pinnacle. “When I was younger, I never had dreams of grandeur. I didn’t think I was going to the Olympics,” said Elizabeth Bohnsack, a former Rutgers gymnast. “I knew before I was in high school that it was not an Olympic dream. It was a college dream.”
Currently, the top-ranked all-around college gymnast is UCLA’s Vanessa Zamarripa, who came to college as one of the best Level 10 gymnasts of all time. Former Nebraska star Tricia Woo, who went onto perform with Cirque du Soleil after graduation, also never competed as an elite. Not that she felt thwarted by that. “I was just a Level 10 and I was kicking butt,” she noted.
Zamarripa posited that one of the reasons that Level 10 gymnasts tend to do well against elites in a recent podcast interview. “Club kids who don’t go elite are a little healthier because they aren’t as beaten.” Maloney is a classic example of the injured elite. She arrived at UCLA with a lingering stress fracture in her leg that required multiple surgeries and forced her to sit out two full college seasons before she was able to resume gymnastics.
Still, many of the elite and NCAA stars speak wistfully about their elite days or flirt with the idea of a return or at least admit the desire to learn some new skills that are unnecessary in the NCAA. Zamarripa has considered taking her game to the next level, competing at a few national elite meets in 2010 before tearing her ACL.
Some, like Mohini Bhardwaj, resume elite training after they graduate from college. Bhardwaj made the Olympics in 2004 at the age 25 after missing it in 1996 at the age of 17 and was a major contributor the U.S. team’s silver medal.
Still, you shouldn’t watch this weekend’s competition with the goal of spotting the next Olympic stars. Those kids are still in high school, biding their time until they can swarm the collegiate ranks.
Correction, April 23, 2013: This article originally misspelled Ashley Miles' first name.