College Athletes Rare in Olympic Gymnastics

Aug. 9, 2004

By Frank Portillo The Daily Bruin

LOS ANGELES (UWIRE)-- Sometimes it's just easier to move on. Such is the case in the world of collegiate gymnastics, where the best college gymnasts in the country regularly watch younger elite gymnasts do tumbles at the World Championships and Olympics, all from the friendly confines of their televisions. Nearly 98 percent of all NCAA gymnasts come from the upper echelon of gymnastics competition. Most were once World Championship competitors and even Olympic hopefuls. And though still eligible to compete at the elite level, once these gymnasts get to college, they never seem to look back. One glance at the U.S. women's gymnastics roster and you won't find a single collegiate, even though UCLA had several seemingly good candidates from its record-breaking NCAA championship squad this past year. The reason? Collegiate gymnastics is just easier in many different ways. Elite gymnastics scoring is much more stringent. An elite gymnast can perform the hardest skills and routines and still end up with a mediocre score. In collegiate gymnastics, though, perfect 10s are common, seemingly adding a complacency factor. "In elite competition you have an 8.8 start value," UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field said. "In college our start value is 9.5." "It's very difficult to get a high start value in elite gymnastics. You really have to add more training time, and that puts a lot of strain on the body." Indeed, NCAA training is a cake-walk compared to what elite gymnasts go through. By NCAA law, collegiate gymnasts are limited to 20 hours of training a week, and though that may sound like plenty to most, it pales in comparison to the 40-plus hours of training elite gymnasts normally do in a week. Former UCLA gymnast Yvonne Tousek, who made two Olympic teams and competed at the elite level for most of her career, immediately noticed the difference in training intensities when she got to UCLA. "I did a lot of intensive training when I was on the national team in Canada, and then I came (to UCLA), and it was less intensive, which was nicer on my body," Tousek said. "In college, we're competing every weekend, but elite (competition) is harder on the body," Kondos Field said. "There's no way college gymnasts could compete every weekend at the elite level." Nowhere is the lack of collegiate gymnasts more evident than in Olympic competition, where not even the best college gymnasts in the country participate. For example, Bruin gymnast Jeanette Antolin dominated the collegiate gymnastics scene last season and was the Sports Illustrated "Gymnast of the Year." Despite her success, Antolin refrained from returning to elite competition and attempting to qualify for the Olympics. In fact, out of the 18 gymnasts on UCLA's reigning NCAA Championship team, only Kate Richardson returned to elite gymnastics, making the Canadian Olympic team in the process. Quite astoundingly, Richardson is the first UCLA gymnast to make an Olympic team while still competing for UCLA in Kondos Field's 14 years of coaching the team Looking at everything Richardson had to do in order to return to elite competition, it becomes quite obvious why no other collegiate gymnast is willing to go that route. Aside from her normal hours of UCLA training, Richardson would remain in the gym long after her teammates had dispersed, devoting herself to additional hours of individual training. She also had to increase her class load so she wouldn't fall behind, knowing that she would need to take spring quarter off from school. "I would really like to see more college gymnasts compete at the elite level," Kondos Field said. "I think a lot of them could still compete internationally." Unfortunately, that may not happen because sometimes it's just easier to move on.

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UCLA gymnast Katie Richardson