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For top Texas gymnasts, there’s no chance to stay home for college

Most days in a Houston suburb, some of the best gymnasts in the nation mosey into their training facility for another 7 a.m. practice. They arrive early, sometimes wearing pajamas or sweatpants over their leotards, and as they run, jump and stretch through their warmup, college-logoed apparel indicates their plans: Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, among others.

The elite gymnasts — an exclusive level reserved for the best athletes hoping to represent the United States in international competition — are chasing ambitious Olympic-size goals at World Champions Centre, the club owned by Simone Biles’s family. But eventually they’ll be stars in the NCAA. To find a major program, they’ll have to leave Texas because the state that produces more top recruits than any other doesn’t have a Division I team.

“Most girls that I’ve met, they want to stay in Texas if they could,” said Joscelyn Roberson, a 17-year-old who performs uber-difficult beam and floor routines and is committed to Arkansas. “But they just can’t.”

So other schools drain the college-ready talent out of the state and build teams that thrive. Oklahoma, the defending national champion, earned this year’s top seed after a dominant regular season. The Sooners have won four of the past six NCAA titles, with several stars hailing from Texas. LSU, another neighboring program, has reached this weekend’s NCAA championships with a roster that includes four Texans and two others from Louisiana who trained at clubs across the border.

The eight teams at this weekend’s event — held in Fort Worth for the sixth time since 2015 — include 18 Texans on their rosters. That mark is outdone only by California with 21 gymnasts, the majority of whom represent in-state programs UCLA and California.

Of more than 1,200 Division I gymnasts, 96 are from Texas, and more trained in the state but list hometowns elsewhere. California, which tops Texas with 133 gymnasts, has six Division I programs. Many of those athletes chose a nearby college. Every state that produced at least 40 gymnasts on this season’s rosters — except Texas — has at least one Division I program. Division II Texas Woman’s University is the only in-state NCAA team.

As the sport’s popularity rises at the college level, fueled in part by an influx of Olympians, coaches hope that momentum could prompt a change. In 2024, the University of Texas, along with Oklahoma, will join the SEC, a conference in which ESPN regularly broadcasts gymnastics meets and some teams attract sellout crowds. Other schools from major conferences — Texas A&M (SEC), Baylor (Big 12), Texas Tech (Big 12), TCU (Big 12) and Houston (Big 12, beginning later this year) — have athletic department budgets that outsiders see as ripe environments for successful gymnastics programs.

When asked about the potential of a Division I team in Texas, Randy Lane, coach at Long Island University and the chair of the Collegiate Gymnastics Growth Initiative, said: “I’m glad that I’m close to retirement because I think it will be over. … Within three years, they will be pushing the envelope of winning a national championship.”

But that timeline toward a title has yet to begin.

A hotbed of talent

Texas’s pipeline of talented gymnasts starts with its population — around 30 million, the second most in the country — and its sprawling suburbs, which are conducive to large facilities. Prominent coaches immigrated to the United States and landed in Texas. Then gymnasts and more coaches flocked to those clubs that had produced elite stars. With “families in Texas who are committed to athletic excellence,” said Annie Heffernon, USA Gymnastics’ vice president of women’s gymnastics, a “perfect storm” led to the steady stream of top gymnasts.

Three of the past five Olympic all-around champions — Carly Patterson (2004), Nastia Liukin (2008) and Biles (2016) — trained in Texas. Seven of 16 gymnasts on the current senior national team are from Texas clubs, as are six of 11 junior national team members.

That trend trickles down to lower levels, and the top gymnasts in level 10, the tier just below elite, can be nearly as equipped to excel in college as the Olympic stars. Of the 278 recruits in the 2023 and 2024 classes with at least three stars in College Gym News’s ratings, a nation-high 34 train in Texas. The state also has a U.S.-best six five-star recruits.

“There are so many incredible club programs in Texas,” Bart Conner, an ESPN commentator, said during a broadcast this season, as Oklahoma’s Audrey Davis and Utah’s Jaylene Gilstrap, who both trained near Dallas, performed back-to-back routines. “It still blows my mind that there is no Division I team there for anybody — Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, TCU. Somebody, please, start a program down there.”

Difficult decisions

Visual proof of the NCAA talent with roots inside these Texas clubs hangs on the walls. At WOGA, a prominent club in the Dallas area, banners decorate the lobby — a graduating year, a list of names and college logos. At Metroplex, also near Dallas, they fill walls of the gym: “CONGRATULATIONS,” each large banner says, followed by a gymnast’s name and her new team.

“They’re going to need a new wall,” said Arianna Patterson of Kentucky, one of the final eight teams at the NCAA championships, who previously trained at Metroplex. “You look at the banners every day.”

Younger gymnasts find their NCAA inspiration in those names on the wall or from teams in neighboring states. Patterson loved LSU’s Lloimincia Hall, who had a viral floor routine before those became common. Roberson has a photo with Brenna Dowell, a former elite who excelled at Oklahoma. Abby Martin, one of the best level 10s in Texas, watched the Big Ten because her mom competed for Illinois, but she also attended “my fair share of LSU meets” because that campus is four hours from where she lives near Galveston Bay.

For most Texans, the closest Division I teams are Oklahoma, LSU and Arkansas. Roberson, a Texarkana native who lives outside Houston while training at World Champions Centre, considered location a “pretty big factor” in her recruiting process and initially planned to visit those three schools. (She ultimately swapped LSU for Michigan.) Her dad is a Texas fan, and the Longhorns would have been a strong contender, she said. Instead, Roberson landed on nearby Arkansas, coached by 2012 Olympian Jordyn Wieber, one of Roberson’s favorite gymnasts.

Arkansas sees its proximity to Texas as a recruiting advantage, Wieber said. Gymnasts appreciate quick trips home, and parents want to travel to meets easily. Arkansas grants scholarships to students from nearby states, including Texas, if they meet GPA requirements, which helps Wieber recruit walk-ons.

Other Texas gymnasts with Division I talent, but not enough to earn an athletic scholarship, may face a financial challenge if they still want to compete at that level because they have to leave home and pay out-of-state fees.

Powering top teams

Skye Blakely, a Texan who won gold with the U.S. team at world championships last year, had dinner with her parents and Florida Coach Jenny Rowland in the fall of 2021. While eating fajitas at home in Frisco, Blakely’s parents kept glancing at their daughter, wondering if she would say what she had planned. Eventually, the teenager talked at “20 miles per hour,” Rowland said, revealing her commitment to the Gators — another exceptional gymnast heading to the SEC.

After vying for a spot on the 2024 Olympic team, Blakely will join the team at Florida, a perennial title contender. Her older sister, Sloane, is already a Gator, one of three Texans on the second-seeded team at nationals. Sloane, a sophomore, routinely delivers standout performances for the Gators — and one day Skye will, too.

Not all gymnasts want to stay in state — “I honestly wanted to go somewhere different than Texas,” said Skye Blakely, whose mom graduated from Texas. The best NCAA gymnasts come from all over — Oregon State’s Jade Carey (Arizona), Florida’s Trinity Thomas (Pennsylvania) and LSU’s Haleigh Bryant (North Carolina). But most of the top teams are powered, at least in part, by gymnasts from Texas. Check back in a few years, and that will still be the case.

Kaliya Lincoln, one of Skye Blakely’s training partners at WOGA, is heading to LSU. Lily Bruce, a top level 10 at World Champions Centre, is committed to Florida. Martin, who recently earned the second-best all-around score out of 183 level 10s at the state championship, is off to Arizona, and her five-member freshman class includes four gymnasts from Texas.

“We all bond,” she said, “over how much we love Texas.”

The push for a program

This dichotomy — so many great gymnasts in Texas but no Division I program — is widely discussed. Lane, who works to grow college gymnastics, often hears, “You need to get Texas to add.” But it takes time, relationships, money and convincing.

In 2018, prominent gymnasts and coaches pushed for a program at Houston. Biles tweeted that she would consider coaching if the school added a team. Those endorsements never materialized into a program.

Lane said the Collegiate Gymnastics Growth Initiative has presented its pitch for adding gymnastics at four universities in Texas, which he declined to name, adding there are “ongoing conversations with some schools now.” With Oklahoma, a gymnastics power, joining the already strong SEC, coaches wonder if one of the conference’s schools in Texas could be further incentivized to add a program.

“Any day now, somebody is going to figure out this is a really good idea,” Wieber said, referencing how the SEC will soon include both Texas and Texas A&M.

The number of Division I programs has remained relatively stagnant over the past two decades. With Clemson set to begin competition next year, there will be 63 programs. Starting a new program requires a specialized facility and expensive equipment that can’t be shared with other sports, although the maximum of 12 scholarships per team isn’t as big of a financial commitment as that of most other teams. The work that led to Clemson’s decision could be a blueprint for persuading other major athletic departments.

Lane is hopeful “when one school adds in Texas, there will be more to follow.” He thinks there’s room for several programs — “five, six, seven” — in Texas and room for all of them to be successful. The coaches, Lane said, would have a “running start.”

That’s because there are plenty of gymnasts like Florida’s Rachel Baumann. Her family ties stretch from Texas A&M (where her parents attended) to Texas (grandparents) to Texas Tech (an aunt and uncle). She has Texas-themed decorations at home in Gainesville, and she appreciated the Texas-shaped waffles at the hotel when the Gators traveled to compete at Texas Woman’s. If the state had a major program, “it probably would have been my first choice,” she said. Baumann thinks others would have opted for a similar path.

“The state of Texas should have a D-I team,” said Rowland, whose roster with Baumann and two other Texans could win the Gators a national title this weekend. “And, really, I don’t think those schools understand the potential that they have in Texas.”

Source: The Washington Post