Alyssa Baumann competes in the floor exercise at the 2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 21, 2014 in Pittsburgh.
The path to world and Olympic glory often passes through the NCAA, but rare is the sport where such glory actually precedes Division I distinction. But women’s gymnastics has never been like other sports, and for many of the biggest names, saluting the judges in an NCAA arena comes after repping Team USA at events around the globe during their teenage years and early adulthood.
With the current NCAA gymnastics season now underway, let’s meet some top NCAA gymnasts (and coaches) who have also represented Team USA in a major international championship.
Alyssa Baumann, sophomore, Florida
Treasured by coaches and fans alike for her beautiful technique on balance beam and floor exercise, Baumann’s brightest moment representing Team USA came at the 2014 world championships in Nanning, China, where she helped the Americans defend their team title. An untimely elbow injury days before the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials began kept Baumann from being able to contend for the team that would go on to be known as the “Final Five,” but as a collegiate athlete she has become a key part of the Florida lineup on her best events. Baumann knows how to rise to a challenge: her career best 9.95 on floor at the 2018 NCAA Championships came during the Super Six.
Madison Desch, junior, Alabama
Desch’s difficulty-loaded beam routine made her a standout on the junior and senior national team during the last Olympic cycle. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Desch and a strong U.S. team cruised to gold over continental rivals Canada and Brazil, and Desch finished with a silver medal in the all-around. At Bama, the Kansas native has come into her own both in the classroom and on the competition floor — especially on beam and vault.
Brenna Dowell, senior, Oklahoma
Weaned at the same gym as Desch, Dowell is one of the few gymnasts whose NCAA campaigns have intersected with her years on the national team. Dowell didn’t give up after being selected for the 2013 world championships team but not competing in Antwerp, Belgium, that year; she deferred the 2015-16 school year to focus on the world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and was selected for the team. There, she not only took gold with Team USA, she also became the first woman to do a double pike front in world competition. Today the move is named for her. She picked up right where she left off, winning a share of the NCAA title on vault in 2018.
Sarah Finnegan, junior, LSU
The 2012 Olympic team alternate is touted as one of the great beam queens of NCAA gymnastics, just as she was during her days representing Team USA. A crowd-pleaser on floor and beam, Finnegan’s skill and polish has already earned her perfect 10s on uneven bars, beam and floor during her two years in the NCAA. As LSU strives to earn its first ever NCAA title this season, Finnegan will be one of the gymnasts looked to lead them.
Rachel Gowey, junior, Florida
Gowey’s greatest international triumph was winning the uneven bars title to go along with the team gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, and she’s put her experience to good use at Florida, where she appeared in every bars and beam lineup in 2018. In addition to her natural athletic ability, the expressive Iowan has a gift for fluid movement, which makes her one to watch on both beam and floor.
Amelia Hundley, junior, Florida
Armed with eye-catching routines and dogged determination, happy Hundley, known to her U.S. teammates as “Meels,” won the hearts of fans. After collecting a complete set of medals — gold with the team, silver on floor and bronze on uneven bars — at the Pan Am Games in 2015, she transferred her talents to the Gators, where she has emerged as one of the team’s steadiest and most steadfast performers. In addition to giving seven all-around performances in 2018, Meels also carried off the team’s Heart and Soul award.
Madison Kocian, junior, UCLA
When they competed for the Bruins for the first time together in 2017, Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross made history as the first U.S. Olympic gymnastics gold medalists ever to compete in the NCAA. Kocian, who shared the world title on uneven bars in 2015 and won Olympic silver on the event in Rio in 2016 in addition to gold with the team, has contributed enormously to Bruins success during the past two years. Her near-perfect 9.9325 on bars after a disastrous beginning to the Super Six at the 2018 NCAA Championships sparked a resurgence that ended with the Bruins holding their seventh NCAA team title.
Courtney Kupets Carter, head coach, Georgia
The only gymnast to have won the all-around and every event at the NCAA Championships during her college career, Kupets Carter is among the most dominant NCAA athletes of hers or any other generation. Her NCAA success came after an Olympic journey that included recovering from an Achilles tear at the 2003 world championships in time to help the U.S. earn Olympic team silver in Athens in 2004, where she also claimed uneven bars bronze for herself. The GymDogs’ long-running dynasty ended when Kupets graduated in 2009, and in an attempt to re-capture the magic, Georgia hired her as head coach in 2017. So far it seems to be working — the GymDogs opened their 2019 campaign last week by hitting their highest season-opening score since 2007.
Maggie Nichols, junior, Oklahoma
Known during her elite career as “Swaggy Maggie,” Nichols has added even more sparkle to her already glittering resume during her first two years of NCAA gymnastics. The top all-around gymnast in the nation last year, Nichols has also savored a team title with the Sooners in 2017 and also earned shares of the titles on uneven bars in 2017 and 2018 and floor exercise in 2018. During her freshman season, she scored seven perfect 10s. All this comes after an elite career that included world team gold and bronze on floor in 2015. True to form, Nichols recorded the season’s first perfect score for her vault during Oklahoma’s opener last weekend at Arkansas.
Katelyn Ohashi, senior, UCLA
The 2011 U.S. junior champion, who mastered one of the most difficult beam routines ever from a U.S. gymnast, also has the distinction of being the last person to beat Simone Biles in a major international all-around competition. That moment came at the 2013 American Cup, and though their paths have diverged since, Biles and Ohashi still have something in common: the ability to captivate crowds with their performances, particularly on floor. Ohashi’s Michael Jackson-themed routine went viral last year. That wasn’t all: she closed out the season with a pair of NCAA titles — one shared with her Bruin teammates, the otherwith Nichols on floor.
Lexie Priessman, senior, LSU
That extra bit of heart and grit the 2012 U.S. junior champion puts into every routine has carried Priessman through an NCAA career that while brilliant has been riddled with injuries. A mighty talent despite the challenges, Priessman has kept on to help lift LSU ever higher toward what it hopes will be a national title this year. As she rounds out her career this season, a healthy Priessman remains an all-around threat.
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Kyla Ross, junior, UCLA
Ross’ reputation preceded her at UCLA, and with good reason. The baby of the 2012 Olympic team, Ross was an Olympic gold medalist before she was eligible to obtain a driver’s license, and in the years that followed the London Games, she only got better. The Honolulu-born Ross would go on to win five world medals, including gold with the team and bronze in the all-around in 2014, in addition to the all-around silver she earned in 2013, and pad her reputation as one of the country’s steadiest and most elegant performers. Her college debut was highly anticipated, and in two seasons at UCLA Ross has not disappointed: as a freshman in 2017, she took NCAA titles on bars and beam, and followed up with the team title and two top-three finishes last year.
Emily Schild, sophomore, Georgia
Schild helped the U.S. to team gold at the 2015 Pan American Games, as well as to the 2016 Jesolo Trophy title, where she was also third on vault. After competing at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Schild ended her elite career and joined the GymDogs in 2018. Returning from a hyperextended knee injury in her freshman season, Schild competed seven times on bars, four times on beam and made her vault debut at the NCAA semifinals. Her season’s-best score was a 9.875, which she earned on bars.
Megan Skaggs, sophomore, Florida
In her first-ever floor performance as a Gator, Skaggs coolly tied the school record for a debut on the event by posting a near-perfect 9.925. Her reputation as a steady performer dates back to her years on the U.S. national team, with whom she earned gold at the 2015 Pan American Games and snagged a silver on the balance beam for herself.
MyKayla Skinner, junior, Utah
Some gymnasts struggle making the transition from elite to the NCAA. Not Skinner, who has gone from strength to domination. A lights-out vaulter and tumbler who sizzled as a member of the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning team at the 2014 world championships and was later named a 2016 Olympic team alternate, Skinner’s gymnastics has become more refined in the NCAA, where finesse is valued as much as difficulty. The Arizona native possesses both in spades, and confidence to boot: her college hit streak — Skinner has never missed a set in 114 routines she’s competed for the Utes — is one for the ages.
Sabrina Vega, junior, Georgia
Vega was the leadoff gymnast in the Americans’ quest to recapture the world team title in 2011, and neither she nor the team disappointed. Though left off the Olympic team in 2012, the New Yorker resurfaced to help guide a struggling Georgia team back to national prominence beginning in 2017. A dazzling performer on all events, Vega’s specialty nonetheless remains floor, where she was a first team All-American last year.
Jordyn Wieber, volunteer assistant coach, UCLA
Perhaps the most overqualified volunteer coach ever, Wieber was the it girl of Team USA from her first appearance at the American Cup in 2009, which she won at the precocious-even-for-a-gymnast age of 13. It was a sign of great things to come: Wieber went on to win the 2011 world all-around title and help the “Fierce Five” clinch Team USA’s first Olympic team gold medal in 16 years in London in 2012. Wieber turned professional in 2011 and gave up her NCAA eligibility, but still wanting to experience the magic of college gymnastics, she has become an integral part of the Bruins squad, which she coaches on floor. UCLA ended their 2018 season ranked first in the nation on floor, a number very familiar to their coach.
Blythe Lawrence is a journalist based in Seattle. She has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.