From Europe to State College: Penn State men’s gymnastics has a heavy international presence

By David Willett | April 17, 2024
Kacper Garnczarek prepares to mount parallel bars at a Penn State men’s gymnastics meet.

For many student-athletes, college athletics marks one of the largest transitions in their life, traveling across states to attend large universities and reach new levels within their sport. For some of Penn State’s top male gymnasts – Akseli Karsikas, Kacper Garnczarek, and Ian Raubal – this transition meant moving across the Atlantic Ocean.

While many teams in NCAA men’s and women’s gymnastics have an international team member, Penn State’s men’s coaching staff has had great success in recruiting international and Puerto Rican gymnasts, including Ethan Dick (New Zealand), Wyatt Tyndall (Canada), Sam Zakutney (Canada), Alexis Torres (Puerto Rico), and Ingvar Jochumsson (Iceland). This has not changed as almost 25% of Penn State’s current roster is made up of international gymnasts.

A European melting pot

The most recent international newcomer to Happy Valley is Karsikas, who is part of the Finnish national team. Although he is a freshman, he brings a wealth of experience to the team as he has competed at the past two world championships. His ability to handle high-intensity moments has been on display this season as he has averaged a 13.4+ on high bar.

Karsikas’ path to finding his position at Penn State stemmed from his aspirations to pursue higher education and continue on his dream of becoming an Olympian. Beyond the NCAA, the opportunities to pursue both are quite limited.

“For my country, it is pretty challenging to do gymnastics and university, so [I] researched where I could study and do gymnastics at the same time. I knew one of the Finnish team members, [Franz Card], had gone to Penn State, and he introduced me to NCAA gymnastics,” said Karsikas. From there, he got connected to the coaching staff and the rest was history. 

It was a similar path for sophomore Garnczarek, who traveled from Poland to State College. However, Garnczarek did have more direct exposure to NCAA gymnastics from junior competitions.

“My team, Poland, had the opportunity to compete in a few meets in the U.S., and one was the West Point Open. I was competing in the junior session, but one of my coaches said we should stay and watch the NCAA competition… We watched prelims and finals, and following the meet, my coach talked to [Penn State assistant coach] Carlos [Vazquez]… That conversation brought me to the NCAA and college gymnastics,” said Garnczarek. He also knew a former Minnesota Golden Gopher, Timmy Kutyla, as Kutyla had competed at the Polish national championships in his junior career, giving him another resource to learn about college gymnastics in the States.

Sophomore and co-captain Raubal had a faster approach to landing his spot on Penn State’s team.

“The spring when I was graduating high school is when I started to think about [NCAA gymnastics],” said Raubal.

Despite a later recruiting timeline, Raubal was able to secure his spot quickly and is now a mainstay in Penn State’s lineups. “My parents were a little surprised about me leaving [Switzerland] for four years, but my family is international in a way in that we have lived in a lot of places, so they are accustomed to the family being abroad,” he added. Raubal and his family were more prepared for this transition as they had previously lived in the U.S. and had experience living in multiple countries. There was clearly little adjustment after Raubal finished his freshman season as one of the team’s statistical MVPs. This season, Raubal is once again making an impact and executing routines worthy of the All-American moniker, such as his 14.550 on parallel bars against Ohio State.

Worthwhile challenges and trade-offs

Despite their international experience, finding immediate success in the NCAA can be a new challenge, just like for their American counterparts. Competing on a weekly basis and a longer season while pursuing higher education will put a strain on anyone’s ability to perform. Having competitions early in the year is also a hurdle of competing at the collegiate level.

“I usually was not ready to compete by January… I would still be training skills before putting them into routines, but now, I am in routine shape from January to May,” Garnczarek said. With the five routines up, five routines count model, competitors are expected to maintain a high hit rate, which makes increasing the difficulty of routines quite a challenge. “The consistency of my routines is better now, but I cannot do routines as hard as I used to do to make lineups… I am more confident now with my routines, but I sometimes miss the feeling of competing something crazy,” Garnczarek admitted. 

Another hurdle in the transition is variations in equipment. There are many equipment providers across the world such as Speith, Janssen Fritsen, and so on, but the predominant equipment producer in the U.S. is AAI. Transitioning to AAI equipment can be difficult for international gymnasts, as many prefer other brands.

“The main difference [between AAI and Spieth] is floor… When you are at the competition seeing other gymnasts do E and F-valued skills gives you confidence, but it is harder… If I can do my sets on AAI, I can do my sets anywhere,” said Garnczarek, regarding the equipment change.

“It took me time to get used to high bar, parallel bars, and floor. Mostly it’s different, but I am just happy to have all the events,” said Karsikas, giving his perspective.

With that said, the increased opportunities to showcase one’s training and intense emotions found in an NCAA competition can make all the additional routines worth it.

“What I enjoy most is the emotions that come along with competing… It is not just the celebration for your own routine but for your teammates,” Raubal said. “Seeing your teammate hit their routine and stick the dismount, then just going crazy is fun and makes competing a lot more fun when you are happy to see everyone around you succeed.”

On top of the benefits of being able to compete while advancing one’s education is the institutional support from the university.

“The support you get [at Penn State] as an athlete is incredible… As a gymnast with a time-intense training schedule, none of what we do would be possible without the institution working with you and supporting you,” Raubal explained.

This is extremely important for competitors who are also traveling abroad to compete.

“The qualification process for team selection has been good between the university and the [Swiss] national team… For bigger competitions, I can do video trials in season, and I will send videos over and they will actually show those videos at the trial in between competitors as if I am competing there, and so I can be judged fairly,” Raubal noted about continuing to compete at both the college and elite levels.

Karsikas also noted the extent of support, saying, “I was training at the national training center for the past year, and we had trainers but we did not get the snacks and care that I do now.” 

What may be the best benefit of training at a university like Penn State is the large amount of athletes pushing for the Olympics from a variety of countries. Having so many individuals setting their aspirations beyond the NCAA realm can push the boundaries of a team and create a uniquely productive training environment.

“In the clubs, there are not many gymnasts on one team,” Garnczarek said. “So it makes such a difference when I see 15 people working hard. Even when I am tired, I feel like there is no way that I can stop… I am not saying I did not push myself in Poland, but it is much easier when I see many more pushing themselves.”

Quite possibly the hardest transition for these competitors didn’t occur in the gym.

One of the notable educational differences between European and U.S. universities is the change in structure and grading. Most international universities are heavily reliant on exams for grading, putting high pressure on the final tests in a class. This differs from the U.S., which often incorporates attendance, papers, and homework into the grading scale.

“In elementary school, we had homework and the teacher told you what to do, but in university, the exam is the only thing that matters,” said Karsikas, in regard to European educational norms.

While the U.S. model can provide more structure and prevent a student from falling behind, it can also create time constraints and challenges week-to-week.

“In the U.S., it is a lot more structured, where everything contributes to your grade… If you’re not great at the exam, it gives you a chance to have a buffer if you do all the assignments and homework, but for us, where time is a big constraint, that is sometimes more challenging,” said Raubal, while considering the benefits and challenges of each system.

This holds especially true for student-athletes who are pursuing rigorous degrees like Raubal, Karsikas, and Garnczarek, who are studying biomedical engineering, computer science, and economics, respectively.

As for the benefits, Garnczarek expressed a affinity for the grading style – “This system works; you do not fall behind as easily.” 

Additionally, the overall size and student body of universities in the U.S. can be vastly larger.

“The biggest highlight is that I did not know there was gonna be 50,000 people, which is actually so crazy – so many students that I can meet and learn with… In Poland, it is different… In the U.S., everything is all in one place, kinesiology, economics, and business are all found in the same place. In Poland, they are split into separate universities,” Garnczarek explained.

Kariskas also noted the strength of the community found on a college campus: “It is a small community. We eat in the same place, workout in the same place. In Finland, there is not such a community… Everyone is here together, and there is not many people not part of the university here.”

Beyond school and gymnastics, there are cultural and language challenges at play.

While all three gymnasts spoke English (in addition to multiple other languages), the vocabulary, lingo, and slang of American English can change quite fast.

“The hardest thing for me was the language barrier… I will say my English is much better than before I came… It is not due to my vocabulary but the style people talk here. When I talk to a native speaker, it is so much easier, but the slang here is hard to adjust to,” Garnczarek said.

Having other teammates who have had to make the transition can ease the process. “I really enjoy living with Kacper; he just understands some of the cultural differences and stuff like that, being from Europe,” Raubal said.

The learning curve isn’t too much of a challenge though; all three athletes are active on social media, namely Instagram, with strong followings.

And then there’s (American) football culture.

While the dedicated following and stadium size rival European football, especially in the Big Ten Conference, the full game day experience can differ. It’s a high-energy experience with an often overwhelming number of people, so it’s not surprising that it’s not for everyone.

“The first couple of games were really good, seeing like 100,000 people was pretty crazy… But why do people stand for 4 hours?” Garnczarek said.

“Football here is insane. I had to learn the rules when I got here, but once I got that down it became a lot more fun to watch… but it is not completely for me,” Raubal admitted.

All eyes on Paris

Beyond Penn State’s U.S. athletes pushing for the Olympics, namely Josh Karnes, the Nittany Lions’ European contingent and New Zealander Ethan Dick will be looking to make it to the Paris Olympics this summer, but the routes to qualification vary.

“The path to the Olympics is quite different for everyone. For the U.S. guys and me, with Switzerland already qualifying a team, it is truly about how we compare within our national teams. Whereas Ethan, Akseli, and Kacper, they really have to win their own spot,” Raubal explained.

Garnczarek and Karsikas will both be vying for an Olympic berth at the 2024 Men’s European Artistic Gymnastics Championships from April 24-28.

The problem is that there is only one spot.

“My career goal is to make the Olympics. There is only one spot from the European Championships, with many countries competing… There is always a chance, but if not this year, I will try again in 2028,” Garnczarek said.

Karsikas maintains a similar outlook on the competition, stating that regardless of the outcome, “I want to keep going until 2028.”

Europeans is a quick turnaround from the NCAA championships in Columbus, Ohio, which end on Saturday, April 20. Four days later, men’s Euros will begin, giving both Garnczarek and Karsikas a less than four day turnaround to get to Rimini, Italy, and be ready to compete.

“I already qualified to the European championships this year in Italy, and it is four days after NCAA, so right after the competition, I am going to fly from Columbus to Rimini,” Garnczarek said of his plans.

Something that may go overlooked is the benefit to these international athletes of competing as an individual versus with a team. Individuals like Garnczarek and Karsikas can afford to compete at NCAAs and make the quick turnaround to Euros – they’re competing for themselves and don’t have to consider the logistics of the team competition.

“It can be really difficult [navigating NCAA gymnastics while] being on the Swiss national team due to our high level, as a lot of the guys do gymnastics professionally. For example, if there is a big competition like the European championships, I am to be expected to be there two to three weeks before the competition so I can prepare with the team, which is impossible in season,” Raubal explained.

But that’s next week – right now, the focus is on finishing the season strong at the NCAA championships.

With Karsikas, Garnczarek, and Raubal in Penn State’s arsenal, the Nittany Lions are primed for a strong showing at nationals, and the European melting pot is strong for years to come in Happy Valley.