The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Did You Mean Mariah Carey?

So, remember when the news came out that Aunt Becky paid $18 billion so that USC would pretend her daughters had seen a canoe before, and then you texted your fellow gym nerds a link to that article with the words “Maria Caire” underneath? No? Well anyway, the LA Times did.

Today’s piece about favoritism/nepotism in the inclusion of seeming civilians on UCLA athletic rosters features the story of Maria Caire, the Carmen Sandiego of college gymnastics whose mysterious semi-existence has been fascinating us for years, and who turns out to be the niece of one of Miss Val’s buddies (oh, look how that worked out). I’m obviously in heaven that this is a news story.

If you don’t recall, Maria Caire appeared on the UCLA roster in the fall of 2016. At first glance, her inclusion was fairly unremarkable because this always happens. It seemed like Caire was just one in the long line of UCLA freshmen who are never in a million years going to compete a routine but appear on the roster for one year and then disappear—or hang around as a manager or something and we’re told “you guys don’t see it, but she’s the most important member of the team.” She just seemed to be that year’s Matteah Brow (2016), Karli Dugas (2015) [Edit: Dugas’s L7 background may take her out of this category and put her closer to Caire’s, but at least she was a gymnast], Jessy Macarthur/Alex Waller (2014), Rachel Luba (2011), Danielle Greig/Courtney Shannon/Chloe Takayanagi (2010), Tiffany Hyland (2009), and…at this point I got tired of looking.

We have been making fun of that phenomenon since the dawn of time, but it ultimately seemed harmless. So some L10s train with the team and move mats and get water. Whatever.

And it should be mentioned that every once in a while, it actually worked out. When Sadiqua Bynum appeared on the roster in 2012, her JO results had not been very strong and seemed to indicate she might be yet another one (though training videos did demonstrate a ton of as-yet-unused potential and the possibility of high-level upgrades). She ended up turning into an absolutely essential contributor to the team on two events that no one would now put in the “who is she?” category, but that was a reasonable assumption at the time, as it was for her classmate Ellette Craddock who also turned into a lineup contributor.

Still, the difference is that all of those athletes—the ones who worked out and the ones who didn’t—were…athletes. Legitimate gymnasts with skills who had been L10 and competed at state competitions. For instance, right now UCLA has Mercedez Sanchez on the roster, and while we’re never going to see her in a lineup, she is an actual gymnast with routines who could have competed for other schools. Most top teams have gymnasts like that. Halley Taylor at Florida, Olivia Gunter and Rebecca D’Antonio at LSU, Sam Javanbakht at Michigan. That’s super normal, and there seems to be no issue with those gymnasts being on teams.

I would include the Wallers—who are not discussed in the piece—in that category as well, but it is a more complicated issue and a potential flashpoint for controversy because they obviously wouldn’t have been on that team without their dad, but the line of nepotism is difficult to draw because they were also both L10s and Alex had some legit skills and accomplishments in her pocket. When Sami Durante was planning to go to Georgia and compete for her mom before…you know…no one remotely had an issue with that because Sami Durante is clearly a high-level gymnast who can compete 9.9 routines for a top school. But where is the line between “you’ve earned it” and nepotism?

The difference between Caire and all of these other people mentioned was…is she even gymnastics? The evidence was scant, and all possible search methods were very disappointed that she was neither Mariah Carey nor the magazine Marie Claire and physically could not go on from there.

Something seemed to be up because she didn’t remotely have the gymnastics background to pretend that she might be a depth option on this or any team. This was a step much farther than your normal “well, UCLA lineups are tough to make” non-competing walk-on. But then she disappeared from the roster after one year—as they always do—and then we all forgot about it. Until this moment.

And there are many complicated issues at play here. First, there’s the question of, if she was legitimately admitted to the university on her academic credentials, what harm is there in letting her walk on to the team and hang around? There’s harm if she’s taking a spot or resources away from someone more deserving, but if not, it’s basically just an issue of a person getting to do something cool simply because they know the right people. Not great, but people suck, and that’s never going to change. Please join me in the corner, criticizing them as a form of protest.

At the same time, was she legitimately admitted to the university on her academic credentials? We don’t know. But if you were already admitted to the university on academic credentials, then why would you need to pretend to be a gymnast in the first place? And if you just wanted to be part of the experience and could use connections to do that, why not just come in purely as a manager with no pretense that you can kip?

Coming up with what seriously looks like a fake gymnastics career for this person who…maybe just did gymnastics recreationally a little bit?…brings up a lot of ugly questions about why it needed to happen in the first place. The logical answers end up looking pretty damning, as does this story of Val trying to get Cory on the golf team because…what? Had he ever seen a golf before? What was that even about?

Not helping matters are these attempted explanations like “oh, she might have contributed on vault…” (Nope.) Or “oh, if not for those untimely injuries…” (Nope.) We can see you. We know she wasn’t going to walk-on and then be able vault in a couple years. You’re thinking of Kendal Poston. This is Maria Caire. They would have been better off simply saying that UCLA makes a point of giving chances to people without the traditional credentials who can help the team in other ways beyond gymnastics, which they do. Or just telling us what actually happened. Maybe that.

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