College Gymnastics Explained
Big routines, big applause, and bigger hair: In a nutshell, collegiate gymnastics. For gymnastics fans, college gym is an excellent way to follow the sport during the long breaks between elite competitions. After all, while your favorite elite athlete may compete less than once a month, college teams compete nearly every weekend.
The Different Divisions Explained
The National College Athletic Association (NCAA) governs sports for many schools in the United States. Under the NCAA, there are three divisions:
Division I schools offer full scholarships for athletics, which break down like so:
- 12 full scholarships a year for women’s gymnastics.
- 6.3 fully scholarships a year for men’s gymnastics.
Non-scholarship and non-recruited athletes may have the opportunity to try out and become part of the team, or “walk on.”
Division II schools can offer a limited number of gymnastics scholarships:
- 6 for women.
- 5.4 for men.
These are often divided amongst members of the team so that multiple athletes receive partial scholarships.
Division III institutions cannot offer athletic scholarships. Although these schools can’t award financial aid to athletes, many Division III universities have outstanding academic standing. Athletes can benefit from certain academic perks, while also competing at a high level.
College gymnastics is considered a winter sport, culminating in the post-season championships in the spring. But before the competition season begins, teams are already hard at work.
According to NCAA rules, athletes can only practice for 20 hours a week while the sport’s in-season. Some teams hold voluntary practice in the pre- and off-seasons so that athletes can informally stay in shape. Many teams also encourage cross-training and weight room sessions.
In the Heat of the Season
Colleges compete nearly every weekend, with six athletes on each event and five scores counting toward the team total. As a result, many gymnasts who competed all-around throughout their high school careers find themselves competing in one or two events in college — it’s all about the team.
As the season winds down, the top Division I teams compete at Regional Championships to determine who qualifies for the National Championship. Exceptional Division II and III athletes can also qualify to compete at Division I Nationals.
Since the inception of the Division I Championship, only four schools have taken the title: The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama, and the University of Utah.
Once at Nationals, the “new life” system kicks in: No matter how well a team has done in the season, everyone starts from scratch. Thus this competition is an opportunity for upsets and underdog victories.
Divisions II and III also have national competitions that follow the new life structure: The USA Gymnastics (USAG) Collegiate National Championship for Division II, and the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (NCGA) National Championship for Division III.
What to Watch For
You may not see the jaw-dropping difficulty of the elite competitions, since college gymnasts compete under Level 10 rules. However, a number of Olympic gymnasts have gone on to successfully compete for universities.
At a college competition, you’ll notice much of the following:
- Stuck landings and dismounts.
- Playful, expressive floor routines choreographed to popular music.
- Scores out of a 10.0.
- Loud, raucous cheers from the teams and fans alike — many Division I meets attract thousands of spectators.
Collegiates Going Elite
While elite athletes frequently turn to college gymnastics as a way to gracefully finish their careers, some gymnasts do the opposite; upon graduation, they make a run at elite competition.
One notable case is Mohini Bhardwaj. After graduating from UCLA, Mohini returned to elite and competed at the 2004 Olympics, helping the USA team to a second-place finish.
So if your favorite gymnast is graduating, don’t lose hope — they might decide to keep training!
First Steps to Fandom
Whether the competition is between non-scholarship gymnasts at a small college, or it’s between former Olympians at a large university, you can count on high energy and quality gymnastics. Internet live streams and social media make it easy to follow your favorite teams, even if you’re thousands of miles away from their meets.