5 must-watch storylines at the 2023 NCAA gymnastics championships
- Amy Van Deusen is a senior editor at espnW. A former Division I collegiate gymnast, she is currently based out of San Diego.
The NCAA gymnastics championships start Thursday, and with it come mystery, intrigue, and — hopefully — good judging.
There will be no shortage of excitement as California, Denver, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Oklahoma, UCLA and Utah face off in Fort Worth, Texas, for a chance at the title.
Here are five storylines that will shape the competition:
The Trinity question
Will Trinity Thomas be healthy enough to compete? This may be the biggest, most pressing question. On the first day of regionals, Thomas landed her double layout first tumbling pass seemingly without problem, but then was forced to stop her routine due to a “lower leg injury.” She withdrew from the rest of the competition and the regional final two days later, and no further information has been released, other than her status is “day to day.” On Wednesday, at the official practice session, Thomas trained only on bars.
It’s hard to overstate how big Thomas is in the sport. She is the reigning NCAA champion in the all-around, bars and floor. She is only one perfect 10 away from tying the 27-year-old collegiate record (of 28), and has earned perfect scores on every event this season at least once. She is, simply put, a legend.
Florida has other stars in Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello, and a deep team that can rise to the occasion without her, but Thomas can make the difference for them in challenging for the title. The Gators haven’t won since 2015, and have been oh-so-close in recent years. In 2022, Florida placed second to Oklahoma by .1125 — and Thomas has said the reason she took a fifth year was to win an NCAA team title.
Can anyone beat Oklahoma?
The reigning NCAA champion Sooners have led the national rankings every week this season. They even won the regional final — scoring a 198, no less — despite counting a fall on the beam. Across all four events, they have gymnasts who can consistently bring in 9.95+ scores.
On paper, they are absolutely the ones to beat. But there’s also no guarantee here. They won’t have room to make any mistakes, like they did at regionals. With UCLA and Utah in the same semifinal as Oklahoma, the Sooners will need to bring their best both days to win.
They’ve shown they can, though. Led by sophomore Jordan Bowers’ all-around might, Audrey Davis on bars is truly the best in the field, and the junior has also been a quiet threat in the all-around this season. Sophomore Danielle Sievers starts the squad off on bars and vault with a confidence that belies her age, and junior Kat LeVasseur has an uncanny ability to score a 10 on vault when it matters most.
The team is arguably the greatest in the country at sticking their landings and hitting handstands on bars, and those can make the difference when the competition is tight.
The collegiate judging system is always one of hot debate, and this season has been no different. In the now-infamous Denver regional final, all four teams ranged from 197.65 to 197.875 — essentially the equivalent of a gymnast taking a medium-sized step on a dismount. LSU and Michigan tied for the second spot, with LSU winning the tie-breaker and advancing to nationals. Michigan was crowned national champion just two years ago, and ranked No. 3 nationally this season, but is still left on the outside looking in this weekend.
With scores so close, even small mistakes can end championship hopes. And if everyone hits, subjective judges’ opinions will have a huge impact when spread across eight teams and 192 routines overall. So … be prepared to feel passionately that your team was robbed. If every team has a great competition, truly any one of them could come out on top. And then, of course, those scores will be analyzed and argued about until the end of time.
Led by Olympian Jordan Chiles, the Bruins make their first nationals appearance since 2019, after recording their highest postseason score in history (198.275) on the first day of regionals. It’s been a tough four years for UCLA, with the retirement of renowned head coach Val Kondos Field in 2019 (after seven national titles and 36 years with the program), and then the brief tenure of Chris Waller, who resigned after last season. But under new head coach Janelle McDonald, the team looks poised to make a serious run at the NCAA title they last won in 2018.
Unfortunately, they are in that ultra-tough semifinal matchup with Oklahoma and Utah, both of whom are ranked higher and beat the Bruins in the regular season. But this UCLA team is nothing if not inspirational. Chiles has had a stellar year, winning the all-around, bars and floor titles at regionals. Freshman superstar Selena Harris had the top all-around score on the second day of regionals, and also earned the first perfect 10 of her career. Her reaction with Chiles sums up all that is right with the world:
UCLA may be an underdog, but this season has already been a big one for the Bruins as the team returns to the top of the sport.
Those notably absent
When all the dust had settled from regionals, it was clear there would be some pivotal competition missing from Fort Worth. Michigan is the most obvious one, as the Wolverines are the only team to have beaten the No. 1 Sooners this year.
Also of note: Olympic all-around champion Suni Lee has been out due to kidney-related health issues, and her Auburn team did not advance to nationals. Because Lee didn’t compete at regionals, she was ineligible to qualify as an individual even if now healthy. Lee led the all-around and bars rankings at various points during the season, and could have challenged for both titles, and likely on beam as well.
While Lee’s Olympic teammate Jade Carey (Oregon State) did qualify to championships as an individual, it was only on beam, despite her No. 1 national ranking on floor and in the all-around. Why? The qualifying rules are incredibly strict: A gymnast must be the top scorer on the first day of regionals, and not on a qualifying team, to make it. Carey’s 39.65 was bested by Michigan’s Abby Heiskell by .025, the smallest margin possible other than a tie. Carey missed out on floor to Michigan’s Sierra Brooks by the same amount. (Refer to section above: The scoring!)
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