Olympics

Suni Lee, Jade Carey, a team title no one can predict — the key storylines to watch at NCAA gymnastics championships

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Eight serving teams fighting for the top spot. Olympians battling for all-around supremacy. Redemption stories. Unheralded heroes. The 2022 NCAA gymnastics championships has it all — and might be decided by the tiniest fraction of a point.

Back in front of a full crowd for the first time since 2019, the competition gets underway on Thursday at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas with two semifinal sessions.

Here are the most fascinating storylines you’ll see in Fort Worth – and everything else you need to know before competition begins.


The closest competition ever?

This year, it’s going to be very, very difficult for a team to win it all, with a near-perfect meet required to do it. We’ve already seen storied programs, such as LSU and UCLA, be eliminated during the regional competitions. And it’s not just the early exits that make this interesting — it’s how both teams lost. Only 0.325 of a point separated LSU from second-place Iowa in the second round, and UCLA ended — controversially — just .025 of a point behind Missouri in the regional final. If football is a game of inches, gymnastics might just be a game of fractions.

In fact, just advancing to Saturday’s final should be seen as a victory in itself. Thursday’s first semifinal (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2) features Oklahoma, Utah, Minnesota and Alabama, and the second session (6 p.m. ET, ESPN2) includes Florida, Michigan, Auburn and Missouri.

Oklahoma finished the regular season ranked at No. 1, but Michigan is the defending national champion, Florida posted the highest score at regionals and Utah has the top-ranked beam team (often the make-or-break event). It’s truly anyone’s title to win.

« There is so much parity, » Utah head coach Tom Farden said after regionals. « You have to be dang close to flawless to get into the last day at nationals … You can see it across the country how tight things are and it speaks volumes about the level our sport is at. »

The top two teams from each session on Thursday will move on to Saturday’s finals competition (1 pm ET, ABC).

Both of the semifinal competitions will also have individual qualifiers — gymnasts who earned the highest scores amongst non-advancing teams during regionals — including two 2021 Olympic medalists: Oregon State’s Jade Carey (all-around) and UCLA’s Jordan Chiles (floor, bars ). The event and all-around titles will go to the gymnasts with the highest score after the two rounds of semifinals are complete.


Will an Olympian win the all-around? Not necessarily

The US Olympic gymnasts competing collegiately have dominated much of the spotlight this season — and deservedly so. Carey and Auburn’s Suni Lee, who both earned gold medals in Tokyo, owned the top two spots in the all-around rankings during the regular season, with Utah’s Grace McCallum, who earned a team silver, at No. 6. All three will now look to earn the weekend’s highest individual honor and add some more hardware to their already impressive collection.

But while it may seem as if Olympic medalists would be the obvious favorites to win the title, that’s not entirely true. Yes, they’re capable of the hardest skills — in the world! — but to put it simply: That doesn’t matter nearly as much in college gymnastics.

In elite competition, the scoring is an open-ended system meant to reward the gymnasts who attempt and accomplish the most difficult skills. At the NCAA level, the highest score is a perfect 10.0, and that is an attainable goal for many of the top gymnasts if they can execute their routine without any mistakes. In fact, there have been 67 routines that have scored a 10.0 so far this season.

So the winner will not necessarily be the gymnast who does the most difficult skills, but the one who can perform her routines as perfectly as possible. Even little things, like a dismount that is stuck versus one that is not, can make the difference.

Other gymnasts who could contend for the NCAA all-around title include Trinity Thomas, Leanne Wong and Megan Skaggs (Florida); Sierra Brooks, Abby Heiskell and Natalie Wojcik (Michigan); Lexy Ramler and Ona Loper (Minnesota); and Raena Worley (Kentucky).

Chiles, the fourth member of Team USA competing at the NCAA level this year, qualified on floor and bars, but not in the all-around. She, like her teammates from Tokyo, will certainly have a chance to win an individual event title — Chiles earned two 10.0 scores on floor and one on bars this year – but the event title contender lists are similarly long, and it’s by no means a given.

Florida’s Bridget Sloan was the last Olympic medalist to claim the all-around crown in 2016. UCLA’s Kyla Ross earned four event titles during her esteemed career and, as of now, is the only Olympic gold medalist in history to win an individual NCAA title.


The Gator redemption mission

Florida spent the entirety of the 2021 season ranked at No. 1 and was the favorite to win the championship title entering the postseason.

But in the first rotation in the finals, on balance beam, the team recorded two falls and had to count Thomas’ uncharacteristic score of 9.175. The Gators spent the rest of the meet trying to dig themselves out of a hole, but the deficit was simply too large. Florida finished in fourth place.

This year, the Gators are hoping for a much different result. Not only did Florida win the SEC conference championships last month – with the second-highest total in score in the history of the event – but the Gators also clinched four of the five individual titles as well.

Florida then earned the highest score in regional competition with a staggering 198,775 total.

Thomas, now a senior, is arguably the best gymnast in the country. She ranks in the top 5 on every event, and is No. 1 on floor and vault. She has recorded a season-leading 10 perfect scores and won the all-around title at the SEC Championships and at the regional finals.

And it’s not just Thomas. Leanne Wong, Nya Reed, Sloane Blakely, Alyssa Baumann and Megan Skaggs are also more than capable of monster performances — and have been racking up big scores and event titles all season long.

Will the talent-loaded Gators have the ultimate redemption this week and win the program its first title since 2015?


Aiming for a two-peat in 2022

Michigan may not get the attention some of the other teams receive, but what they’re lacking in starpower the squad more than makes up for in experience. The Wolverines pulled off the staggering upset over reigning champion Oklahoma and the favored Florida team during the 2021 NCAA championships, thanks to the consistent heroics of Brooks and the title-clinching beam performance of Heiskell.

Both return to Fort Worth leading the team alongside Wojcik and Gabby Wilson, and with plenty of momentum on their side. Michigan won the Raleigh regional and earned its seventh Big Ten championship in nine years last month. The Wolverines ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country on floor and vault, and Wilson earned a perfect score on the latter event during regional finals.

Michigan is also tied with Florida for the highest regular-season average (197.841), with its regular-season high score just a half a tenth behind Florida (198.525 to Florida’s 198.575.) If all goes well for the Wolverines, they could become the first team to repeat as champions since Oklahoma in 2016 and 2017.

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