College Gymnastics In The Time Of COVID-19

A Q&A with Kathy Johnson Clarke about the upcoming season.

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So I guess we’re really doing this.

By “this,” I mean the college gymnastics season in the middle of a raging pandemic. There’s a not-so-small part of me that is excited to get to watch actual gymnastics meets on TV again. And unlike in years past, I don’t have to eschew social engagements in order to watch Friday Night Heights on the SEC Network because there are no social engagements to eschew in a time of COVID! But there’s another part of me that feels very ashamed of that not-so-small part that simply wants to watch gymnastics, you know, because of this pandemic and all the health risks involved in holding meets, traveling, and training.

There is a very strong case to be made that this year’s college gymnastics season shouldn’t be happening at all, and it’s a view I mainly share. Here’s a really good piece by Emily Mineheart that goes into the myriad of reasons why we should call it quits before we even get started. As she notes, the youth and physical fitness of the athletes does not make them invincible in the face of this virus:

This fall, the Big Ten announced that one-third of its football players who had tested positive for COVID-19 developed myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart. Myocarditis is linked to a number of sudden death cases in young athletes and is not something to take lightly.

On December 12, Florida basketball player Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the court during a game at Florida State and was put into a medically induced coma. He was diagnosed with an inflamed heart possibly related to a previous COVID-19 infection. He won’t play the rest of the season. 

In gymnastics, Oklahoma freshman Meilin Sullivan is out for the season with myocarditis. The Oklahoma medical staff caught the inflammation after noting high troponin levels and confirmed via a cardiac MRI, per Sullivan’s mother on social media. Johnson was also diagnosed via MRI.

And just yesterday, MyKayla Skinner, 2014 world team champion and 2021 Olympic hopeful, announced on Instagram that she had developed COVID-related pneumonia and, from the looks of things, appears to be in the hospital.

There are probably more athletes with undiagnosed myocarditis preparing and training for competition. The implications of this are terrifying. (And we haven’t even discussed all of the other people involved in making a college season happen—coaches, support staff, facility managers. There’s a long list of people who could potentially be exposed to COVID-19 in the course of a college gymnastics season.)

Yes, this is a dark time, least of all because of a potentially disrupted college gymnastics season. But here is one little bright spot—Kathy Johnson Clarke, our favorite college gymnastics commentator, will be back on air. And she has returned to this newsletter to do another Q&A! She was featured in the very first newsletter of 2020, and I was so pleased when she agreed to answer some questions for 2021. (I had initially planned this to be the first newsletter of 2021, but then Hilariagate happened and I snuck in the Q&A with Leni Briscoe on New Year’s Day. If you missed it, here it is!)

The Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Dvora Meyers: The 2020 season ended abruptly, which was heartbreaking for everyone but especially for the gymnasts. How do you think the 2020 season would've ended in terms of results and milestones? Do you think Oklahoma would have defended their title or would Florida have given them a run for their money? Would Kyla Ross and/or Maggie Nichols have broken the NCAA Perfect 10 record? And what are some other things that you believe might've played out?

Kathy Johnson Clarke: Obviously, as a broadcaster covering NCAA gymnastics I, along with our entire crew, have a responsibility to tell as much of the full story as possible, and that comes with a list of priorities. We must present the competition as it unfolds and keep the audience informed of individual and team scores, season/career highs, lead changes, building or losing team momentum either by hitting/sticking routines or counting costly errors/falls, etc. That's the sports and television part of it. Scores matter. Rank matters. Winning matters. Especially for those in contention for those big scores and top spots, and keeping our audience informed and engaged.

Yes, we were primed for a very exciting head-to-head match up with the always well-prepared, difficult-to-beat Oklahoma and Florida, the talented, fueled by the awful taste in their mouth from the previous year's "did that really happen?" shocker at Regionals! Add a very hungry, ready-to-pounce, Utah, and star-studded UCLA, who pushed each other all season as great rivals do, a really good Michigan team and surging-at-the-end LSU and Alabama and I think it was going to be a fantastic NCAA post-season and final! In some ways, I was relieved for Denver not having to continue pushing a skeleton team after two devastating losses (Lynzee Brown and Mia Sundstrom). It was certainly wonderful to see people step up and into line-ups, but that gets hard! It would have been interesting to see what Minnesota could do with the opportunity that a diluted Denver team provided. Regionals is going to become a really exciting part of postseason moving forward and I hope we can somehow get the television coverage it merits! The time of year makes that tricky with March Madness in full swing!

All-around and event results at the NCAA finals are always challenging to predict and often end up as head scratchers because of the imperfect meet format, but who didn't want to see Maggie and Kyla work their magic the rest of the season, especially when 10s were flying and there were other fantastic gymnasts in the mix?!?! How things ended up in terms of scores, records and wins is something we will never know and I don't want to speculate and put my thumb on the scale. I have way too many favorite routines, parts of routines, performances, and pieces of gymnastics to go down that rabbit hole!

What I missed personally is the opportunity to highlight individual strengths, what makes each gymnast unique, what they do best. I miss telling the personal stories of resilience in the face of challenging circumstances. I especially missed seeing the gymnastics careers of so many superlative seniors end without the opportunity to honor them in a special and meaningful way. Each and every one deserved that moment in the spotlight. I missed the feeling I get each year knowing that the little girl in each of them got that one final shot at being the best they could be before moving on.

DM: There has been a lot of debate about whether the college sports season in any sport should go forward while the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. What is your view on the situation? Is there a way to move forward with athletic competition while keeping everyone—athletes, coaches, officials, etc.—safe? In your opinion, what would it take—or should it take—to cancel the 2021 NCAA gymnastics season?

KJC: This is a difficult question and the most important to scrutinize. Bart [Conner] and I have just begun our conversations with the coaches in the SEC and it sounds like most programs are complying, testing and contact tracing, staying as isolated as possible, learning from mistakes, and figuring out a way to keep their athletes and coaches safe and committed to doing everything possible to have a season. I took a look at the SEC Covid-19 medical protocol for winter sports, which just came out several days ago, and it looks great on paper. I know it's very possible to keep the teams in their own "bubbles" during dual meets and clean the equipment and mats when they switch, but how long and how well can they ALL keep that up when season begins and they are traveling and staying in hotels every weekend, I honestly don't know.

My hope is that at every turn the right decisions are made to eliminate the risk and to always err on the side of caution if there is any doubt or a choice to make. I hope they have an unmitigated conviction to safety, first and foremost, and the courage to call off the season if that becomes necessary. Trust me, I'm not sporting long, silver-gray hair and doing my own nails right now because I want to be a walking, talking science experiment. I have been exceedingly careful, but I was also privileged enough to be ABLE to stay at home all these months and endure the loss of income caused by the pandemic. I don't throw caution to the wind with respect to my own health and safety and those closest to me and I certainly don't want to see medical science, common sense and responsibility tossed out the window just to get a meet.  So far I am seeing appropriate steps being taken to safely START the season and we will have to see each week how it continues. The first test will be seeing where things stand after the athletes get back from their short winter break and have just a matter of days to test negative, hopefully, and prepare for the first meet on January 8th. 

As for television, we want to assure gymnastics fans we are doing everything possible to keep ourselves and everyone else safe, so we will work remotely and broadcast from a newly set up home studio, which should be a thrill a minute for everyone! Though I will certainly miss being there in person, I am actually looking forward to the challenge! Kind of like what a gymnast must feel if they need to alter a routine to work around an injury or issue. According to our coordinating producer, ‘The headline is that we have had to adjust some of our production plans to work around important Covid protocols and guidelines.’

DM: Women's college gymnastics has been building a lot of momentum online and on television over the last few years, culminating with Katelyn Ohashi's viral floor routine back in 2019. Do you worry that last season's abrupt end and this coming season—should it even go forward—being more limited in scope will slow the momentum that the sport has been building for years?

KJC: It could, but I hope not. ESPN/SEC Network is covering a remarkable number of meets this season so this is where I am hopeful our production crew can make a difference. We have a very special team committed to not just putting product on the air, but actually elevating gymnastics and presenting it in the way it so richly deserves. We may not be able to introduce new and nifty elements to our broadcast this year, but we can tell stories. During this immensely challenging time we can't let perfection be the enemy of the good, nor can we get in the way of telling the stories of these remarkably resilient young people who have sacrificed so much for the greater good to keep the most vulnerable safe—parents, grandparents, coaches, trainers, staff, teachers, fans, etc. We are at great risk of irreparably harming this generation. Their mental, physical, emotional, educational, and financial health is on the line. This season, should it happen, is a gift to them. That is the way I am approaching it and I hope I do them justice.

DM: What are you most looking forward to in the 2021 NCAA season? (This might be hard to answer with Missouri’s Helen Hu being out with an ACL injury.)

KJC: First, I am always deeply saddened by any injury, especially one that results in a missed season. It's no secret I love Helen Hu's work. She's a gorgeous addition to NCAA gymnastics so it's an enormous loss for all of us, but especially for her personally and for her team. LSU's Kai Rivers is out for the year as well, so I'll miss seeing that big vault. So, what am I most looking forward to? Seeing these athletes work together as a team and make something special out of a really crappy situation. One of the things that makes collegiate gymnastics so unique and special is the trust they have to have in each other and that notion of having each other's backs in each line-up. That is going to be amplified this year because they're not just responsible for their training in the gym and performance in competition, but what they do and don't do every day to keep each other safe and healthy. Inevitably, someone is going to test positive, someone is going to get contact traced, perhaps multiple people. We may see gymnasts performing on events they never believed they would compete in college. Expect the unexpected.

Whatever we end up getting in terms of a season, I want to make it my mission to really focus on the positives and to emphasize and highlight each athlete's strength, unique qualities or skill set, whatever makes them special. Yes, there will be superior routines in terms of difficulty, technical mastery, artistry, presentation, etc. and hopefully the judging will reflect that and make my job easier, but the theme and through-line of this season should be one of hope and resilience. Like all of us, they have been pushed to put things in perspective and decide what really is essential during the past 10 months. I have watched my son go through it, and seen how it is changing the way he is planning for his future. These athletes are changing in front of our very eyes and are being forced to contend with the very real possibility that this season could end as abruptly as last year. We simply don't know. It's a big leap of faith and I sure as heck hope we use science to guide us. For everyone's sake.

DM: Now to some non-NCAA questions. This past year, after all of the meets had been canceled or postponed, including the Olympics, we saw the emergence of the Gymnast Alliance with hundreds (if not more) gymnasts sharing their stories of abuse in the sport. Why do you think this athlete-led movement has taken off during this time? 

KJC: Why now? What immediately comes to mind is dominoes and floodgates. For decades we had a few people speaking out or trying to draw attention to issues within the culture of elite gymnastics. But the more success we achieved and the more we dominated the gymnastics world the less people were inclined to listen, much less believe anything we were doing could possibly be wrong. Everything became so normalized. When Jen Sey's book came out, they attacked the messenger. Again. Just like with Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Then Dominique Moceanu's book came out and they bad-mouthed and blackballed her. Then Don Peters was exposed as the predator he was and that got a little traction. Then Marvin Sharp happened and people wondered how a pedophile could be a national team coach while photographing and collecting alarming photos of young gymnasts. By the time Larry Nassar became public knowledge and Indy Star masterfully connected the dots that finally pointed directly at USAG the dominoes started to fall. Athlete A opened the floodgates.

When gymnasts from all over started sharing their stories about normalized abuse and how it negatively affects them, even years later, others began to recognize it as way too similar to their own experiences. They could finally see how wrong, twisted and damaging the tactics were that some coaches used to mold them into champions. It gave voice to gymnasts, current and past, who finally decided it was worth sorting through all the emotional baggage they had accumulated through the years of just accepting it as normal and necessary to make them great gymnasts, regardless of how broken they may have felt and still feel. I have to say I was surprised by my own visceral reaction and how thoughts, feelings, traumatic events from years and years ago came flooding back to me with such clarity and depth. And not just things said and done to me, but to others around me. They were things I had already made peace with, and yet I found myself reliving them and sobbing. My guess is that I was not the only one who compartmentalized things through the years—things that happened or were said and done, or NOT said or done, and we all just pushed the subsequent damage to our being deep down and did our best to keep it there. 

DM: You've been quite outspoken for years about abusive practices in the sport of gymnastics. Do you feel that you were taken seriously when you spoke out in the past?

KJC: It's really not important now whether I was listened to or taken seriously at the time or not. What's most important is there is a groundswell of support now for much-needed change and for empowering athletes to demand it. There is no sport without athletes.  And there is nothing more powerful than a group of committed athletes intent on driving the narrative.  

DM: It's perhaps too soon to tell, but do you think the sport is finally being dragged—kicking and screaming—onto the right path? 

KJC: I think this is the closest we have ever been and I'm gratified to see some of our current athletes vying for spots on the upcoming Olympic team are being trained in a much more positive way. No less intense, no less demanding, but the gymnasts have a voice and their coaches are listening. When they have what I believe will be phenomenal success, then we may be able to blow this myth to pieces. Overbearing physical, mental, and emotional abuse is not what made great champions. It's talent, hard work, resilience, an extraordinary commitment to daily excellence by both athlete and coach, good timing, and a little good luck.