10 parting thoughts from the men’s and women’s NCAA gymnastics championships

By Patricia Duffy | April 25, 2024
Photos from the men’s and women’s 2024 NCAA gymnastics championships.
© Amy Sanderson & © Matthew Smith for Gymnastics Now

As the NCAA gymnastics comes to a close, Gymnastics Now founder and editor Patricia Duffy shares her parting thoughts from the season that was.

1. “If you have a perfect bracket, you’re a liar.”

This tweet/X post/whatever from @poorlawyer sums up the NCAA women’s postseason in a nutshell.

As much as Stanford’s run was the Cinderella story we all needed, and as much as all four teams in the Four on the Floor deserved to be there, no one could’ve predicted this outcome a month ago.

And that’s a good thing.

In a time when college gymnastics is marred by a severe need for scoring reform and could (read: has) turned away fans as a result, this postseason gave fans many reasons to celebrate. Meaningful stories drew in viewers and gave them something to root for instead of constantly frustrating them with bogus scores (even though there were still some of those). 

LSU head coach Jay Clark hit the nail on the head in the team’s post-meet presser after winning Saturday, saying, “As much as I feel for what happened to Oklahoma in the semifinals, I think it made for a championship that became so packed with emotion because every team out there believed they could do it. And it was just tremendous.”

2. I’ll be back.

The rest of the NCAA better be on red alert because Oklahoma is going to go full Terminator next season.

This was a favorite of my post-FOTF social scroll:

What happened to Oklahoma during the semifinals will be a topic of conversation for years to come. Some compared it to the U.S. being so hyped to win gold in Tokyo just to… well, we all know what happened (this is not a knock at that silver medal – talk about persevering). 

No, that first rotation vault meltdown was and still is baffling. Seriously, as of writing, I’m currently sitting 34,000 feet in the air wondering if I’m living in an alternate reality because LSU is the reigning national champion not the team that broke the NCAA scoring record less than a month ago. And if the collective gymnastics world is in the same boat, can you imagine how those athletes are feeling right now? Probably feels like a fever dream. 

K.J. Kindler is an enigma – if not for how she produces absurdly dominant teams year after year (this was the first time the Sooners haven’t made the team final since 2013), then for the fact that many respect her, fear her, and admire her all at the same time. Don’t for a second think that she won’t turn this into bulletin board material for returning athletes, of which there are many.

Oklahoma is definitely losing four athletes: Bell Johnson, Kat LeVasseur, Soraya Hawthorne, and Ragan Smith. TBD whether reigning NCAA bars and beam champ Audrey Davis takes a COVID year. They should get Danae Fletcher back from injury and will add a freshman class that includes five stars Lily Pederson and Kelsey Slade and four stars Elle Mueller and Addison Fatta. It always sucks to lose athletes to graduation, but Oklahoma is currently net positive on its roster for 2025. 

While everyone else takes a well-deserved vacay, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Kindler holed up in her office, analyzing that semifinal meet and plotting her redemption as we speak.

3. Now is the time to become a fan of men’s gymnastics

Both the men’s and women’s finals were compelling – although the former did end in a familiar result: with Stanford winning its fifth straight title despite valiant pushes from Michigan and Oklahoma halfway through the competition.

But Thom Glielmi’s Cardinal squad once again proved to be too much for the rest of the field when it counted most. Not a shock – nearly half of the U.S. national team is either currently on the Stanford team or an alum. Still, it can’t be overstated the dominance of this program, which very well could have six straight titles if it hadn’t been for COVID.

Where Stanford excels is having a high level of difficulty and high level of execution, but the other teams are catching up. Michigan, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Illinois all put up 415s or higher this season and are well aware they have to continue to push for that balance of difficulty and execution to have a shot at knocking off the Cardinal. 

Michigan could’ve just as easily been with Stanford to the finish if it weren’t for uncharacteristic mistakes from its stars – Fred Richard and Paul Juda – on high bar. Both will be back with the Wolverines next season, and you can bet they’ll be ready for redemption.

4. Men’s Olympic team shaping up

We’re still two months from Olympic Trials, but the shortlist for the U.S. men’s team is seemingly shorter than the women’s.

NCAA men’s scores can be a little bit out there, but they still use the open code and they’re still able to build their routines with the Olympics in mind. And Khoi Young and Asher Hong still dominated nationals, winning the all-around with an 86+ (Young) and rings, vault, and parallel bars (Hong). (Note: Hong didn’t compete all-around, but he is the reigning U.S. champion.)

Despite some mistakes, Paul Juda still won floor, was second on vault with a stunning (and stuck) Kas 1.5 — watch it here — and finished fourth in the all-around (second to fourth were separated by 0.23). Fred Richard would’ve challenged Young for the all-around title had it not been for a fall on high bar. Richard also finished second on rings.

This isn’t a shock as these guys made up 4/6 of the world team last fall; not much has changed in the six months since. 

Another member of the 2023 world team, alternate Colt Walker, contributed some big scores to Stanford’s win, finished top five on parallel bars, and won the Nissen-Emery Award. 

It’s important to remember NCAAs is really a mini peak for these guys. They’re still building for Paris. With that in mind, as long as they stay healthy, all five will be prime contenders to make the five-man U.S. team at the end of June.

As for the older guys not in the NCAA, they’ll look to start their bid in earnest at the U.S. championships at the end of May.

5. Gabby Perea appreciation

Gabby Perea has to get a shoutout for being that girl of NCAA finals. Cal already had five hits, it was Perea’s final beam routine as a senior in the anchor spot, and she showed everyone one last time why she will forever be a certified beam queen.

First, she missed her front toss to back tuck connection, so she instead connected the first back tuck to a second — insane. Then she brought us a blast from the past: her iconic standing full! She capped it off with her trademark side somi to tuck 1.5.

In a world where we see plenty of back handspring to layout step-outs, aerials, and gainer fulls, Perea’s beam has been a breath of fresh air, and it will be sorely missed.

6. It never gets easier

I’m sure every graduating senior who’s retiring would agree when I say this: it’s an understatement to describe the transition – the end of a major chapter of your life – as a challenge. After approximately 20 years in gymnastics – likely a fourth of your life – these seniors aren’t only bidding farewell to their college homes, an end of a chapter in itself, but also something that has been ingrained in their life since they can remember. It’s a stretch to say they’ll never enter a gym again because they surely will, whether to coach, mess around from time to time, or, perhaps the most full circle, to watch their kids try their hand at the sport that shaped them into who they are (and maybe, just maybe, love it just as much).

For us onlookers, it’s certainly easier, but we still feel a spectrum of emotions after watching these athletes’ journeys unfold through the years.

So, to the seniors, thank you for your years of hard work and dedication. You may (or may not) leave gymnastics, but it doesn’t leave you – you’re forever part of its story.

Some seniors I’d like to shoutout whose gymnastics I personally love (truly, all should be celebrated and appreciated): the dynamic duo of Connor McCool and Evan Manivong, Sam Phillips, Gabby Perea (ofc), Aidan Cuy, Chloe Widner, Raena Worley, Jack Freeman, and GymACT’s Jackson Harrison (and their legendary win on floor at an NCAA meet earlier this season).

7. Gymnastics will win with a focus on the details

The difference between winning a national title and finishing second often comes down to the little details – sticks, bobbles, completing a pirouette on top of the bar – and the difference between sluggish growth and exponential growth for NCAA gymnastics may very well be that attention to detail trickling down to the fan experience.

Last weekend was a prime example with a few aspects of the broadcast/streaming products at both NCAA championships missing the mark.

For one, the men’s meet, which is streamed for free on NCAA.com (a win!), didn’t have a main broadcast during the pre-qualifying (semifinals, whatever), just individual event feeds. It’s great to have the individual event feeds, but that’s catering to one end of the spectrum of fans: dedicated gym gurus. Still, even the most in the loop gym fan would like a main feed that pops around to each event and weaves the overarching story of the meet. Luckily, the finals did have a main feed, but the fact that there was one a day later seems to imply the steps could’ve been taken to have one for the whole championships.

On the women’s side, there was the main feed and the event feeds, with John Roethlisberger and Aly Raisman on the call for the main broadcast. I believe this was Raisman’s fifth time calling a meet – all happening this season – and she did a good job, but the use of superlative adjectives leaned toward excessive. Just like with judges needing to differentiate between a good routine and a great routine, we need commentators to try to do the same, not calling someone’s double layout the best ever just to say the same or similar a few routines later. Now, this is easier said than done as someone who has called sporting events before. It takes time as a play-by-play or color commentator to find your groove, let alone to figure out your crutches and work through them. This is no slight at Raisman, who is doing a great job in her first year on the job and has a bright future, but just a reminder that over-simplifying the sport takes away from the hard work the athletes are putting in and can misinform viewers, especially new fans.

Which brings me to an observation of the current state of gymnastics commentary as a whole: we’re catering to non-gymnastics fans, but maybe we should be doing the opposite (or finding a happy medium). This was a topic of discussion on X over the weekend and is something I’ve pondered all season. Every broadcast I tune into I mute pretty quickly because it’s essentially the same script, just with different teams: how scoring works, explaining the events, talking about how scoring builds (it technically shouldn’t, so it shouldn’t be said), and so on throughout the whole meet. It’s less of an issue in men’s, but in women’s, as the sport has become more big time on ESPN and such, broadcasts have more and more catered to the audience like they’ve never watched gymnastics before. And maybe that’s doing a disservice to both the new fans and the sport. Maybe there’s a place to give a rundown of the basics at the start of the broadcast before getting a little more technical; maybe, just like football and basketball, we should give people more credit and trust that they can pick up on things. Maybe then, when people are given the chance to understand the nuance and complexity of gymnastics, they’ll develop a deeper appreciation and becoming a lifelong fan.

Lastly, for the second year in a row (that I’m aware of), the arena scoreboards at the women’s final took down the scores in the fourth rotation. For what reason, no one seems to know exactly, but this is a seemingly minor yet truly major oversight on the NCAA’s part (or whoever is ultimately responsible). Our spot on press row was right behind the LSU fans, and they had ESPN pulled up on their cell phones to watch the final scores come in – that’s literally how they found out they won. Pretty sure that’s how Jay Clark found out too. This isn’t some cute way to build suspense; this impacted everyone’s experience – fans, athletes, coaches – and made something that should be simple unnecessarily complicated. The scores matter – LSU was a fall away from yielding that title to Cal. As one user said, this would never happen at the Super Bowl, March Madness, or the World Series. We need to do better.

P.S. There needs to be some quality control, specifically on the women’s side, as a whole. This season, the NCAA improperly broke ties for qualifying to regionals, misspelled many athletes’ names, had the wrong 2023 national champions listed on the site in the lead-up to this year’s championships, and more basic errors that show a lack of oversight. It’s important to mention because change doesn’t happen if we just let it go and no one says anything.

8. A desperate need for reform

The increase in the number of judges in the postseason decreases the outrageous scoring in NCAA women’s gymnastics a bit – more judges, more people to spot deductions, less chance for insanity (I’m looking at you, Ten-essee Classic). But don’t let that distract you from the issue at hand: the general consensus is something needs to change.

Last week, media had a call with John Roethlisberger and Aly Raisman to discuss the upcoming championships. On it, they were asked about whether they planned to address the apparent need for scoring reform on the women’s side and if they would try to call out egregious scores. 

Roethlisberger had a thorough answer that reminded me of a seasoned diplomat. It’s some good food for thought:

“There isn’t much we can do to address it, and I’ll be the first to admit, I get caught up in it. As a commentator, we get excited, and we wonder when we’re gonna get the 10 and see Audrey Davis on the floor – this is gonna be the meet she gets the 10! So we’re guilty of the hype a little bit, too, but we have our times of being honest with it as well… acknowledging when I’m surprised that’s a 10. 

“The judging needs to be fixed. We’ve said this – this is an ongoing conversation… Here’s the thing, I don’t think the rules need to be fixed; they need to apply the rules as they’re written down.

“Aly and I had a conference call with a judge about a week or so ago, and we walked through a lot of the deductions, and we start walking through the deductions and how they evaluate – or how they’re supposed to evaluate them… You start to run through routines in your head, and I’m like, ‘That was a 9.6.’ That routine I just saw last weekend [was a 9.6] – not a 9.95. And so it’s really the application of the rules. I think that the judges need to get comfortable enforcing. Here’s the thing: they have to do it from the start. The problem is the end of the season… and the scores start to get a little higher than maybe they should be, and then it’s hard to justify adjusting that end of season. 

“And the coaches need to understand and maybe the judges and the coaches need to communicate at a level that, ‘Hey, we both understand where this is going. We both understand how this is going to be enforced and sit down in a room together.’ Have they ever done that? Have the coaches and judges actually sat in a room together and evaluated routines at the same time? That’s the type of thing I think that’s going to need to have happen.

“I do think, as we get into postseason, you had four sets of eyeballs on them at regionals and conference. They’re going to six, I believe, at the national championships. You have more sets of eyes, more opportunity for deduction. Scores should be a little tighter.

“Here’s the thing: at the end of the day, you can complain about judging if you want to complain about it; you can think this routine was over-scored and that routine was under-scored. That should’ve been a 10; that should’ve been whatever. But did the right team win? … I haven’t gone through every meet this whole entire season. I haven’t critiqued the first routine to the last and said, ‘These teams should have won this many meets and they didn’t.’ Or, ‘This team should have won the conference meet and they didn’t.’ Or, ‘This team should have advanced at regionals and they didn’t.’ If you want to do that, you can, but in general, I really believe the right teams generally win. And when you get to the NCAA championships, if everybody’s getting 9.95s and 10s, so be it. But does the right team stand on the top of the podium at the end of the day? On Saturday night, is that team the best team throughout the week, and do they deserve to be up there? I think, generally, I can’t really think of any moments where I’m like, ‘Absolutely not. That’s not how it should have played out.’ I think the good part of the judging is I think the best teams have generally ended up on the top of the podium. Now, there’s probably people on this call that have dissected it at a level that I haven’t that might disagree, but as long as that’s the case, let’s go and let’s let them hash it out.”

9. PSA: White ribbons are banned

Nearly two years after Skye Blakely’s ribbon fiasco during the beam final at 2022 worlds, LSU’s KJ Johnson seemed to suffer a similar betrayal from her own white ribbon when she fell on floor during the first rotation of the Four on the Floor final. Johnson’s floor is incredible – that’s facts – and fans were deprived of the true impact of that powerhouse routine one last time this season (probably) because of a hair accessory. I’m not saying to stop wearing accessories, but maybe it’s time to ban white ribbons. I’m sure the Leanne Wong Bowtique has some lovely alternatives.

10. Ending on a high note

This is a bonus, mainly because I hate an odd-numbered list, so enjoy some wholesome moments from both championships: