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NCAA Gymnastics for Beginners
Move along, haggard old jaded NCAA fans. Nothing for you to see here. Instead, take this time to write a polemic against the aerial-to-back-handspring acro series on beam.
If, however, you watch elite gymnastics and have finally become fed up with nothing interesting happening 11.975 months out of the year—or you were introduced to the WEARETHEFINALFIVEAHHH during the Olympics and thought, “This sport is a ludicrous sparkleburger that seems to be based entirely on critically assigning numerical ratings to people’s every action, so it’s my life and I’m in love now”—then settle in. NCAA gymnastics is here to soar to your rescue, here to save you from a wretched winter of non-gymnastics discontent by bringing its beautiful qualities like an actual season with weekly meets, stuck dismounts, and legitimately close and exciting team competitions. (I know, right?!?!?!)
So, welcome. Make yourself comfortable. And by that, I mean stay quiet and do exactly as you’re told.
But it’s only fair that I warn you. NCAA gymnastics will change you. By the time you’ve watched a full season, the phrase “like a jank-ass rudi dismount” will be your go-to burn, you’ll be telling toddlers that they really need to display more calm confidence, and you’ll be greeting new acquaintances with pieces of paper reading “9.825” to inform them that they’re just OK.
So, let’s begin. You’re in for a treat.
Item #1 is, of course, Ivana Hong’s triceratops hair. Just know this. If you can’t get behind the idea of Ivana Hong triceratops hair, then you are too far gone to be saved and NCAA gymnastics will never happen for you.
But now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s begin for real.
What…is this thing?
I’m glad you asked. This thing is a big old vat of beautiful insanity called NCAA gymnastics.
Here’s what happens: Once they reach the age of 18 or 19, your favorite elite gymnasts are forced to heave themselves out of their hospital beds, start having a personality, and go to a real school for the first time (harrowing). There, they will join many of the top Level 10 gymnasts in the country to compete on a series of university gymnastics/competitive-temporary-tattoos-on-the-face teams.
They get to do this on a full scholarship because athletes are more important than scientists. Also because, in the 1970s, the US government realized that women exist and told the NCAA that women must be allowed to leave the birthing hut and throw a ball sometimes, even if you can’t necessarily exploit their athletic achievements to make millions of dollars of your own while pretending like you’re doing them a favor in the process. Or something.
These teams spend four months each year competing against other schools—under a code of points that most closely resembles elite competitions of the early 1990s—in the hope of screaming, chanting, sticking, hugging, teamworking, and life-lessoning their way to the annual national championship.
How does the season work?
Beginning the first Friday in January and ending in the middle of April, the NCAA gymnastics season takes over all of your weekends and whole life (as if you had one…) and sees the nation’s 82 teams compete against each other approximately once a week, usually in dual meets against one other school, though occasionally in tri- or quad-meets as well. The main point of dual meets is to make fun of the people who write “duel meets,” as though Florida has challenged Alabama to pistols at high noon.
Also, can Florida please challenge Alabama to pistols at high noon?
With the number of big-reputation, competitive teams going up against each other each weekend, it’s basically like every Friday night is the worlds team final.
At the end of March, the top 36 teams in the country are allowed to continue on to the regional championships, from which 12 teams advance to the national semifinals, from which 6 teams advance to the Super Six Team Final, where the national champion is crowned.
What about individual titles?
HOW DARE YOU, SHUT YOUR FILTHY MOUTH. It’s all about the team. In NCAA, any acknowledgement of individual goals or the desire to win an individual title—or any honest assessment of your own individual gymnastic abilities—is tantamount to treason and will see you drawn and quartered in the town square. On an NCAA team, you are the closest group of sisters, and no sister is more sisterly than any other sister. SISTERS.
Maggie Nichols already gets it. Like an old pro. She just wants to help the team anywhere she might possibly maybe be able to contribute, you guys.
[Whispering] There actually are national all-around and event titles awarded based on performance in the national semifinals, but ssssh. You’re not allowed to talk about them because you might seem selfish or come across like you think you’re more important than the team manager. [/Whispering]
What are the teams?
NCAA gymnastics is infinitely more entertaining if you have a specific team to root for. And, consequently, rival teams to root against. (You’re allowed to do that, like a real sport, just don’t tell the gymternet.)
Before January, I highly recommend picking a team and then getting instantly and aggressively obsessed with it for little reason other than it’s fun. Pick any team. There are no wrong choices. That’s obviously a lie, but I don’t want to discourage you right away.
The most common (and crudest) ways of picking a team are 1) by simple geographical proximity to yourself or 2) by which team’s former elites you like the most.
For reference, here are the former elites (with the awareness that I left out some people who were junior elite for one second) currently on some of the top teams:
Oklahoma – Maggie Nichols, Brenna Dowell, McKenzie Wofford
LSU – Lexie Priessman, Sarah Finnegan, Ruby Harrold (GBR), Erin Macadaeg, Shae Zamardi (CAN)
Alabama – Maddie Desch, Amanda Jetter, Mackenzie Brannan, Ari Guerra, Kiana Winston
Florida – Amelia Hundley, Rachel Gowey, Kennedy Baker, Grace McLaughlin, Ericha Fassbender, Claire Boyce, Maegan Chant (CAN)
UCLA – Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian, Katelyn Ohashi, Felicia Hano, Macy Toronjo, Peng Peng Lee (CAN), Mikaela Gerber (CAN), Hallie Mossett, Stella Savvidou (CYP)
Stanford – Elizabeth Price, Dare Maxwell, Rachel Daum, Kaylee Cole (BOL), Aleeza Yu (CAN)
Georgia – Sabrina Vega, Natalie Vaculik (CAN), Vivi Babalis (CAN), Jordyn Pedersen (CAN)
Utah – MyKayla Skinner, Missy Reinstadtler, Shannon McNatt
Auburn – Abby Milliet
Cal – Toni-Ann Williams (JAM), Jessica Howe
Michigan – Brianna Brown, Talia Chiarelli (CAN), Polina Shchennikova
Oregon State – Maddie Gardiner (CAN), Sabrina Gill (CAN), Silvia Colussi-Pelaez (ESP)
A more advanced way of picking a side is actually watching the different teams and then deciding which style, mood, history, level of dominance/underdogginess, and attitude connects with you the most, but that sounds far too reasonable.
Or, you can just read my season previews here throughout October-December to see which team sounds like it strikes your fancy.
Or just base it on which coach seems the most like a cartoon drag queen like the rest of us did.
How do the meets go?
On each event, six gymnasts compete for each team with the five highest scores counting. At the end of four events, the team with the highest score wins. You know, like a gymnastics competition.
Please note that winning a meet is entirely meaningless (apart from Super Six). Qualification to the regional championships is based on scores, not wins, so the focus is on getting a high team score more than beating an opponent. Still, winning things is fun. Or so I’m told.
How do I watch?
Because NCAA gymnastics is amazing and super popular, TV coverage on the SEC Network, Pac-12 Network, and Big Ten Network has grown dramatically in recent years, meaning the majority of major meets are now broadcast live on TV or streamed through those networks’ online platforms with commentary predominately from people who aren’t terrible. Oklahoma meets are also randomly available sometimes on weird channel numbers, and a great proportion of the smaller teams will have online streams, sometimes even free.
If you don’t have a TV subscription and login ID for the SEC, Pac-12, and Big Ten channels, then you can also build a magical screen out of clouds and dreams and just imagine what facial expression Miss Val is making right then. It’s like the same.
Why is there a lowercase l next to that egg?
Common misconception. That’s not an l next to an egg. It’s actually a 10, which is a score that you can still get in women’s college gymnastics.
WHAT? Then, wait…how does the scoring system work?
That’s an excellent question. I’ll let you know when we find out.
I’m only kind of kidding.
NCAA gymnastics uses a modified version of the JO code of points, only with softer deductions and more overall judging subjectivity and crack smoking. Particularly the crack. I cannot overemphasize how critical crack smoking is to the judging process in NCAA women’s gymnastics.
These days, you will see about one or two 10s awarded each weekend, and for the strongest gymnasts/teams, a score of 9.900-9.950 is considered excellent, 9.850 is fine/solid, 9.825 is OK, and anything lower than that is unlikely to be satisfying or good enough. Once you head into the teams ranked 20-40, 9.850 is considered a much stronger score, and they’re usually happy to count anything 9.750 or above.
For the overall meet scores, the best teams will be expecting to hit 197 regularly. That’s the rule of thumb for a strong score. Anything in the 196s, especially earlier in the season, is not disastrous. Anything in the 195s is.
One of the beauties of NCAA gymnastics, and what makes it ideal for new or non-gymnerd fans, however, is that you don’t have to know anything about the intricacies of the scoring system to understand what’s going on. You can safely assume most routines you see will start from 10.0 (except for Yurchenko fulls on vault which are now 9.950), and the deductions taken from 10.0 are minimal and reserved primarily for the most obvious errors (steps, wobbles, short handstands, etc). That’s why we get scores in the 9.8s and 9.9s. And also why you actually have to be able to hit your skills and have them look good. NCAA gymnastics replaces difficulty with mastery and as a result keeps many teams in contention for wins.
At the top of the rankings, there will be about 8 or 9 teams within a few tenths of each other with a realistic shot to do damage in the postseason, and at last year’s team final, the top four teams were ultimately separated by just three tenths. Small mistakes matter. Wobbles are everything. You don’t know who is going to win before the championship starts.
But what if I actually want to know more about the scoring system?
I’m also here for you. As in Level 10, NCAA routines that meet the element requirements (minimum 3 As, 3 Bs, 2 Cs) automatically start from 9.500, with five tenths of bonus available to be earned in order to get up to that 10.0 start value.
Bonus can be earned by skill difficulty—with D skills garnering 0.1 bonus and E skills garnering 0.2 (E is the highest skill value)—and by connection bonus. A maximum of 0.4 bonus can be earned from either category, so to get a full 10.0 start, some of the bonus must be from skill difficulty and some must be from connections.
The connection bonuses are as follows:
C+C (both skills include flight or 1/2 turn) – 0.1
C+D – 0.1
D+D – 0.2
A+D – 0.1
B+C – 0.1
B+D – 0.2
C+C – 0.2
B+D – 0.2
C+C – 0.2
B+B+C – 0.1
B+B+D – 0.2
B+C+C – 0.2
C+A – 0.1
(Three-element series on the beam itself that include a C element get an extra 0.1 series bonus.)
(The layout stepout is considered C for the purposes of awarding connection value but a D for the purposes of difficulty. Because…remember that thing I said about crack?)
C+C – 0.1
B+D – 0.1
D salto + A dance – 0.1
C salto + A dance + A salto – 0.1
C+D – 0.2
A+C – 0.1
B+B (different elements) – 0.1
B+C – 0.2
A+D – 0.2
A+A+C – 0.1
C+C – 0.1
A+D – 0.1
C+D – 0.2
Many elements (though far from all) share difficulty values with elite, but there are some important exceptions. Of note, bars dismounts like the double layout and full-twisting double back are Es in NCAA, which makes it very easy for NCAA gymnasts with those dismounts to get their 0.5 in bonus.
For execution deductions, take a look at the judges’ cheat sheet included here and then ignore all of that information because 1% of those deductions actually get taken.
But what if I’m put off by the level of enthusiasm and screaming?
This is normal. There’s a lot of screaming and smiling and cheering and entirely unfounded joy in NCAA gymnastics, and it can be extraordinarily upsetting to those who have not gone through a process of exposure therapy to adapt to this strange world in which RBF and sass-eye are not the primary form of communication.
The important thing to remember is that you can always make fun of it. And should forever.
There is a place for sarcasm, disapproval, honesty, and side-eye in NCAA gymnastics as well. I think it’s here.
What are…10 hands?
10 hands (alternatively 10HANDS) is a phenomenon in NCAA gymnastics in which a gymnast will perform a languid beige drape of a routine and her coach and teammates will attempt to trick the judges into thinking it was rainbows by holding up all 10 fingers and shouting, “10! 10! 10!” It is horrible and works sometimes.
As a member of the NCAA gymnastics community, it is now your responsibility to quash it at every turn.
Why are people in NCAA gymnastics constantly trying to tell me that it’s better than elite?
Because in the upcoming war between the worlds, you must pick a side. And our side has a lot more stiletto heels to be used as weapons.
What else should I do?
Play fantasy gymnastics
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything and just pick the names of a few gymnasts that you’ve heard of. You’ll probably still do better than us experts who are always like, “I’m going to pick this obscure Lindenwood gymnast because based on my research…oh, she’s dead.” It’s probably the best way to get yourself excited about the sport, especially teams and gymnasts you wouldn’t care about otherwise.
Scour the rankings
A great way to learn about the teams to follow, scores, gymnasts, and what expectations you should have for the upcoming season is by running through the rankings and meet results from previous years and getting lost in a wikipedia-style information hole.
Watch these routines
As a start.