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Five NCAA gymnastics storylines to watch in 2024

Five NCAA gymnastics storylines to watch in 2024

Tooba Shakir 4 months ago 0 1

After an offseason full of transfers, coaching changes, new teams and conference realignment drama, NCAA gymnastics makes its return on Friday. Like every season, 2024 brings countless questions and storylines to watch.

Will the Oklahoma reign continue? What other teams can contend for the title this year? Can UCLA or the turmoil-plagued Utah bring the Pac-12 top honors in its final season as a conference? Which gymnasts will step up to replace the giant void left by Trinity Thomas, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles?

And, of course, who will go viral? How many Taylor Swift-themed floor routines will we see? And will we ever get sick of Beyonce-inspired routines? (Spoiler alert: No.)

The season opens on Friday with several compelling meets, including the so fetch “Mean Girls Super 16 Gymnastics Championships” in Las Vegas. Sponsored by the upcoming movie, it features 16 of the nation’s top teams competing across four sessions in two days. And that’s just the beginning. Surely the season will only get more intense as it continues, concluding with the crowning of a new champion on April 20 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Here are the must-watch teams and gymnasts entering the new year.


The Sooner dynasty

Oklahoma has won six of the previous nine NCAA team titles and yet that stat somehow doesn’t even fully sum up just how dominant this program has been over the past decade. Case in point: Even during those rare “down” years in which the Sooners didn’t win the ultimate trophy, they finished in the top three and were very much contenders on the final day of the season.

And 2024 looks to be no different.

While the team did lose 2023 NCAA vault champion Olivia Trautman, it is returning several of its stars, including Ragan Smith, Audrey Davis, Jordan Bowers, Katherine LeVasseur, Danielle Sievers and Faith Torrez — and added Georgia transfer Soraya Hawthorne and a talented freshman class.

While other teams may have flashier, more difficult routines or superstar names, Oklahoma — ranked No. 1 in the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association (WCGA) preseason poll — relies on its nearly unflappable consistency and a team-centered approach. And it’s hard to argue with the results they’ve had. Will the Sooners win their third straight and seventh overall come April? The team is certainly more than capable of doing so.

And for those keeping track at home, Smith will be channeling her inner Swiftie on floor in her final NCAA routine, as she previewed at an intrasquad last month.


The challengers

While Oklahoma has won the last two NCAA titles, Florida has been the runner-up in both 2022 and 2023 and is ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll. The Gators have been loaded with ability and potential but simply haven’t been able to get it done on the final day of the season. Will things be different in 2024?

Looking for its first title since 2015 and fourth overall, a new-look Gators squad might have some growing pains but could become increasingly dangerous as the season progresses.

As mentioned before, Thomas — one of the most decorated gymnasts in collegiate gymnastics history — is no longer competing, but she remains part of the team as a student assistant coach. The absence of Thomas and Kayla DiCello, who is out for the collegiate season while training in hopes of making the Olympic team this summer, will be felt on the competition floor.

But Florida has a handful of athletes who will do their part to fill the void — starting with four-time world championship medalist Leanne Wong. The junior is a two-time SEC beam champion and was the 2023 NCAA floor runner-up. Sloane Blakely, Ellie Lazzari, Victoria Nguyen and a finally healthy Morgan Hurd, as well as some impressive newcomers, could also be difference-makers.

And then there’s Florida’s SEC rival LSU. The Tigers, ranked preseason No. 3, have never won an NCAA team title before but have become regulars at the NCAA championships and reached the final day of competition in 2023. Not to mention, this roster is stacked. The team is led by 2023 NCAA all-around bronze medalist Haleigh Bryant and 2023 floor co-silver medalist Aleah Finnegan, as well as eight-time All-American Kiya Johnson, who is expected to make her return following an Achilles injury that sidelined her for most of last season. Add in freshman and 2022 U.S. national champion Konnor McClain, and there might be no other team in the country with this level of talent.

In fact, the Tigers’ biggest problem this year might just be how to determine who will compete on each event every week. But with a long and physically grueling season, such depth might be what propels LSU to its first national title in April. Bryant is no stranger to making history after all — she became the first LSU gymnast and fifth NCAA gymnast to record three perfect scores in a single meet last season.


End of an era

Because of conference realignment and the essential dissolution of the Pac-12 at the end of the current academic year, this will mark the final season for the conference in gymnastics. While we could go on about what a disappointing conclusion this is for one of the best gymnastics conferences in the nation, we’ll instead focus on what we can expect during the Pac-12’s swan song.

No. 5-ranked UCLA is without Chiles this year as she prepares for another Olympic run, but there is no shortage of star power in Westwood this year. Reigning Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year Selena Harris is back and one of the best all-arounders in the country, as is senior Chae Campbell. Fan favorite and four-time All-American Margzetta Frazier returns for a sixth year while former Florida standout Nya Reed joins the team for a graduate year. Reed’s floor routine has already gone viral before the season has even started. The Bruins will look to win their 21st Pac-12 title in March.

Utah, the conference’s other longtime power and currently ranked No. 4, enters the season on the heels of controversy. Following allegations of abuse, head coach Tom Farden has been replaced by former associate head coach Carly Dockendorf. Kara Eaker, a 2020 Olympic alternate who was one of the gymnasts who spoke out against Farden, left the team in October.

Despite the upheaval, the Red Rocks still have 2023 NCAA all-around champion Maile O’Keefe, 2022 NCAA vault champion Jaedyn Rucker and Olympic medalists Grace McCallum and Amelie Morgan on the squad. Perhaps no team has more of a question mark at this point, but that might just give them something to prove.

Oregon State junior Jade Carey, the two-time reigning Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year, will be competing in a reduced number of events this year in order to remain healthy for an Olympic bid following the season. The 2020 Olympic gold medalist on floor told ESPN she plans on focusing on bars and beam.

UCLA and Utah have a combined 16 NCAA titles and are consistently two of the best teams in the nation. But starting next year they will no longer be conference rivals. UCLA will be joining the Big Ten in 2025 and Utah will be in the Big 12. Washington will also be joining the Big Ten, with Arizona and Arizona State joining the Bruins in the Big 12. California and Stanford are joining the ACC — which makes its conference debut in gymnastics this season — and Oregon State’s future remains uncertain. The school is joining the WCC as an affiliate member in several sports for the next two years, but the conference does not have gymnastics.


New additions

Fisk University made its debut in 2023, becoming the first HBCU to have an intercollegiate gymnastics team. And now, just one year later, Talladega College will become the second. The historically Black college in Alabama opens its inaugural season on Jan. 12 with a quad meet at Florida, and then will compete at Fisk three days later on Martin Luther King Day. The Tornadoes also have meets scheduled at Auburn and Alabama, among others, this season. Head coach Aja Sims-Fletcher was an All-American at Alabama and was previously a member of the Crimson Tide coaching staff.

The team is predominantly made up of freshmen but there are also a few transfer students, including Alondra Maldonado from Iowa State.

“I’m excited to go out on the floor surrounded by a team of girls who understand each other on a level I haven’t experienced before,” Maldonado told the school’s website last month. “It’s exciting to be in a place where my personality flourishes, just like everyone else’s.”

Clemson is also set to make its debut this season, after announcing the team’s creation in 2021. The Tigers will open their season at home on Jan. 12 against William & Mary. With the addition of Clemson, 2024 also marks gymnastics’ return as an official ACC sport after a 40-year absence. North Carolina, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh make up the other teams in the conference this season.


Internet sensations

It wouldn’t be a college gymnastics season without at least one viral floor routine. And we didn’t even have to wait for the season to actually begin this year. As mentioned before, UCLA’s Nya Reed took the internet by storm following the team’s “Meet the Bruins” night in December with her tribute to her Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

In an interview with ESPN, Reed said she hoped to inspire the next generation of Black gymnasts with her routine.

“I want people to be able to watch me, definitely little Black girls and other gymnasts and I want them to be like, ‘OK, I see her, I see what she stands for, I see the amount of work she puts into it, and I feel like I can do that and even more,'” Reed said.

Who else is going to go viral this year? Here are some of our best guesses based on what we’ve seen from intrasquad footage. (Note: some schools did not post any videos.)

Chae Campbell (UCLA): Yup, another UCLA gymnast. Unless you’ve been living in a Wi-Fi-less cave, you know the Bruins are the viral queens, thanks in part to the dynamic choreography of BJ Das and the high performance quality of its gymnasts. Campbell, who is as good a dancer as she is a tumbler, definitely displays that quality in a “Black Panther”-inspired routine. It’s hard to think this won’t go viral once the season gets underway.

Amari Celestine (Missouri): Jam-packed with all of your house party playlist favorites, this routine is filled with everything you could want from a college floor routine — including flawlessly-executed choreography, showmanship for days and an exclamation point of a dive roll in the middle. Expect to see a lot of this one as the season goes on.

Abby Paulson (Utah): Another Taylor Swift routine? Another Taylor Swift routine. While we’ve yet to see this full routine, it’s clear this has all the makings of an online favorite — especially if enough people end up sharing it with Swift herself.

Leah Smith (Arkansas): If Smith can replicate even a fraction of the joy and infectious energy she showed with this routine at the Razorbacks’ intrasquad, it will surely be a weekly crowd favorite and could most certainly get the attention of those on the interwebs.

Katherine LeVasseur (Oklahoma): The Sooners senior has never competed in the official floor lineup throughout her time with the program, so it’s unclear how much we’ll see of this routine. But it’s just too fun, and so perfectly Oklahoma, to not include on this list.

Sierra Brooks (Michigan): While viral routines typically feature more well-known music (we don’t make the rules), if anyone can break through without contemporary hits, it’s Brooks. The Big Ten’s 2022 and 2023 Gymnast of the Year has scored a perfect 10.0 on the event previously, and her precision and seemingly effortless tumbling make this routine one to watch.



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