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College Gymnastics Is Represented Throughout U.S. Championships

By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 18, 2022, 10:55 a.m. (ET)

Jordan Chiles during training ahead of the 2022 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 17, 2022 in Tampa, Fla.

 

TAMPA, Fla. – Returning to campus last fall after making his Olympic debut, Brody Malone didn’t have to worry about being called out on the quad.

“Stanford is full of Olympians,” the gymnast explained.

In fact, 57 athletes with Stanford University ties competed at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, a record for the college sports juggernaut. As the California school boasted on its special 2020 Olympics website, only 10 nations won more medals than the 26 earned by Stanford or Stanford adjacent athletes.

Impressive people are just part of the Stanford fabric.

“Everyone there is great at everything they do,” Malone said.

Increasingly, Stanford’s men’s gymnastics program is central to that discussion. Though Malone fell short of winning his third NCAA all-around title in three tries, his team pulled off the three-peat this past April, topping Oklahoma by a full nine points, 423.628 to 414.555.

College gymnastics is an established incubator for the U.S. men’s elite program, with all five of the 2020 U.S. Olympians having competed at the NCAA level. Collegiate athletes and alums again make up the bulk of the men’s roster for this weekend’s OOFOS U.S. Gymnastics Championships, taking place Thursday through Sunday in Tampa.

The women’s path has traditionally been the opposite: Gymnasts do their thing on the hyper-individualistic elite level as teens, then move on to end their careers with the more team-centric college experience.

In what’s perhaps too early to call a trend, college gymnasts are in the Tampa women’s field as well.

Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Leanne Wong — the three best-known entrants, and possibly the three favorites — all competed on the NCAA level in 2021-22.

Coming off an Olympic gold medal in floor exercise, Carey headed to Oregon State. Chiles, a member of the silver-medal U.S. team in Tokyo, found her new home at UCLA. Wong, meanwhile, went to Japan as a traveling alternate for Team USA, then went back a few weeks later for the world championships, where she won all-around silver and floor exercise bronze.

To start her college career, Wong went southeast to Florida.

Long a stalwart in the elite-to-college gymnastics pipeline, the Gainesville school became a soft landing spot for 2008 Olympian Bridget Sloan, among many others, following their retirements from elite gymnastics.

The current Florida roster includes several names elite gymnastics fans would recognize, including 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker, one of the country’s top gymnasts on uneven bars throughout the last quad.

In what’s also too early to call a trend, Florida has now sent two active athletes back to the U.S. championships in recent years. Wong follows Trinity Thomas, who did so after her freshman year in 2019.

Skye Blakely during a press conference after training ahead of the 2022 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 17, 2022 in Tampa, Fla.

 

For Wong, who ended her freshman year with eight All-America honors and helped the Gators finish as NCAA runners-up, coming back to elite this season was always the plan.

“I never really completely retired from elite,” Wong told the Florida athletics website. “It’s always been in the back of my mind.”

According to U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee statistics, nearly 43 percent of the women competing at last year’s U.S. championships have taken part in NCAA gymnastics at some point. The number jumps up to 77 percent for the men.

Skye Blakely, a 17-year-old expected to contend for titles this week, is deferring college until fall of 2024, with the aim of arriving on campus with a fresh new Olympic medal around her neck. When she does arrive, though, it will be in Gainesville.

She’s following in the footsteps of older sister Sloane Blakely, herself a former U.S. national team member who just wrapped up her freshman year.

The choice wasn’t just a sister thing. Her explanation echoes those given by many other elite gymnasts who have gone onto the more team-focused college level over the years.

“When I went on campus for my official visit, I had so much fun,” Skye Blakely said. “Just the environment, it was unbelievable. If I could go there again and again on that same trip, I would.”

The migration of elite gymnasts to college — and now sometimes back to elite — has helped women’s college gymnastics surge in popularity in recent years.

Through it all, two men's programs are increasingly rising to the top.

Oklahoma, with 12 NCAA championships, has long been a standard bearer.

In recent years, though, Stanford has risen to the top.

Coming off its latest NCAA win — the eighth in program history — the Cardinal might as well have their whole team in Tampa. Nine men are listed on the start list for this weekend.

Khoi Young is one of them. A freshman on last year’s team, he finished second on vault at the NCAA Championships.

Just another Stanford student being great. And if Khoi has anything to say about it, certainly not the last.

“Freshman learn what the standard is through the upper classmen,” Khoi said. “Now that I know the standard from being here for a year, I’m going to be part of the group showing the standard to freshman next year.

“It’s really not a person or a coach, it’s just a whole team environment that sets the standard.”

Chrös McDougall

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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