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How to Follow the Gym Dogs: A College Gymnastics Primer

Chances are that most Georgia fans' understanding of how college gymnastics works is based on a) what they see in the Olympics, and b) the fact that UGA has won 10 national championships so WHOOO GO DAWGS! But do you know how college gymnastics actually differs from how the sport is contested at every other level of competition?

Want to know what you're looking at here?  Read on.  Photo credit
Want to know what you're looking at here? Read on. Photo credit
'92 grad

Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of articles inspired by DiemonDawg's excellent suggestion that we attempt to give "primers" for the sports that most casual fans won't automatically know extremely well. For most folks, this basically means everything except football, basketball, and baseball. So with a hat tip to DiemonDawg for the idea, we commence the series with one of our most successful nonrevenue sports: Gymnastics.

If you're even a casual Georgia Bulldogs fan (read: football-only), you probably know that we have a national powerhouse of a gymnastics program (if from nothing else than all the halftime ceremonies during football games). And if you're even a semi-regular visitor to Dawg Sports, you probably also know that after our best-coach-of-all-time-like-ever retired, we Ray Goff'ed our way through the last 3 years before hiring a head coach that seems to have real potential in Danna Durante.

So, the Gym Dogs' fortunes are starting to pick back up, and perhaps you're interested in attending a meet in Stegeman Coliseum (or a NCAA venue near you at which Danna's Dawgs are competing). Do you know how to keep up with the action? Well, if you don't, this is the place for you.

First, let's cover the basics. When we say "gymnastics" at Dawg Sports, what we mean is NCAA (and SEC)-sanctioned women's gymnastics. There are no men's gymnastics teams in the SEC, though the NCAA does also sponsor a separate men's championship. The gymnastics season is broken into two phases: the regular season and the postseason. Ultimately, in terms of hardware, only three meets actually matter, and all are in the postseason.

In the regular season, there are two types of meets: multi-team meets (at which there are usually 4 teams), and dual meets, which feature only two teams. SEC teams are required to schedule at least one dual meet against all of the schools who field teams in the conference. Currently this number is 8: Georgia, Florida, LSU, Alabama, Kentucky, Auburn, Arkansas, and Missouri. Aside from the mandated conference schedule, teams are free to schedule as many meets against as many teams as they wish. Top teams like Georgia usually schedule meets against other strong national opponents like Utah, Michigan, UCLA, and Oklahoma (among others) because of the idea that competing against the best helps you get better, and also because of the NCAA's ranking system, which makes winning and losing essentially irrelevant. (More on that in a moment.)

The postseason is made of up 3 meets: the SEC Championships, the NCAA Regionals, and the NCAA Nationals. The SEC Championship is, essentially, a chance to earn a trophy and call yourself the SEC champion. No automatic berths are granted to the NCAA tournament, but you do get a chance to fill your trophy case and hang a banner, which isn't exactly chopped liver.

The path to the national championship actually starts at the NCAA Regionals. The Regionals consist of 6 teams each, and are held at 6 different sites around the country. Qualifying for the Regionals is based on your NCAA ranking. So I guess I'd better explain that now...

The NCAA's ranking system is based on something called "Regional Qualifying Score," or "RQS," and that's all the technical information that's really important to share about it. (It's complex. You'd fall asleep.) The bottom line is that it's statistically based, and calculated from your average score over your meets for the year. This is the only purpose the regular season serves... to establish an RQS to qualify for the NCAA meet.

So, with 6 regionals of 6 teams each, that means the top 36 teams in the RQS rankings get invited to the dance (or meet. Whatever). At the regionals, the top two teams advance to the NCAA nationals. This means that if your RQS is too low, you will could get drawn into a regional with two other top teams, which would spell disaster for your chances at qualifying for the national tournament.

Once you make it to the NCAA nationals, the 12-team field is randomly drawn into two 6-team groups, which compete in individual sessions on the same day. The top 3 finishers in each session progress to the NCAA finals, which is known as the "Super Six" and is the final stage of the competition. The Super Six compete again, usually after a rest day, and the highest-scoring team in the Super Six meet is the national champion.

Second, the apparatuses on which the women compete are the same as at the Olympics: Balance Beam, Uneven Bars, Vault, and Floor Exercise. The primary difference is that the routine for each apparatus is typically shorter and less complex than what you see every 4 years.

Third, much like the Olympics, there are both individual and team competitions... but since, unlike the Olympics, the primary focus is on the team in college, let's focus solely on the team competition right now. Georgia's team, like most top squads, is made up of 12 scholarship gymnasts (the NCAA limit) plus a few walk-ons. In any given meet, however, only a portion of the team actually gets to compete. Each team can submit only 6 competitors per event in a meet (plus one optional unscored exhibition), and though each event could have a completely separate lineup, in reality the top 8-9 women on the roster end up competing in most of the events, with one or two competing in all of them.

Fourth comes what really matters: scoring. If you watch the Olympics, you know that gymnastics there is scored on a somewhat-confusing scale that has multiple "start values" and allows you to score higher than a "perfect 10," which is, of course, not actually a perfect 10. College gymnastics still uses the "old system," however, where the maximum score is always a 10. As long as a routine contains certain (minimal) basic elements, the start value is always a 9.5, and the gymnast can earn the extra 0.5 points through a combination of originality, difficulty, and execution.

Each event has its own separate set of 2 judges, which sit at different tables and at different viewpoints vis a vis the apparatus. After the event is over, each judge independently arrives at their own score, and those two scores are averaged to arrive at the competitor's final score, which is raised and rotated around for all to see. (This is how you arrive at scores that are not an increment of 0.05. If both judges score a 9.95, that's your score. If one judge gives you a 9.95 and one judge gives you a 10, your score is 9.975.)

Special Note: Unlike other levels of competition, you only get one shot on vault. Gymnasts are allowed three "attempts" to complete a vault, which basically means you can run down the runway up to 3 times. Once you hit the springboard and go over the vault, you're done, and that's your score.

Each team is allowed to field 6 competitors on each apparatus. After all 6 gymnasts have competed a received a score, the lowest score of the 6 is dropped and the remaining 5 scores are added together to arrive at a team score. Therefore, the maximum team score on any apparatus is 10 x 5, or 50. Across the four events contested, this means the maximum team score is 50 x 4, or 200. In the real world, top teams usually aim to score 197 or above, as this is usually around what it takes to make the Super Six. Scores in the high 197's (197.70+) or even 198 are required to actually win the national championship.

On the individual side, it's pretty simple. Whichever gymnast had the highest score on each apparatus during the meet wins the meet title on that apparatus. For the gymnasts who competed on every event (which is usually only 1 or 2 per team), all of the event scores are totaled for that gymnast, and the highest all-around score wins the all-around meet title. (This is slightly more complicated at the NCAA tournament level, but this write-up is long enough as it is, and the bottom line is that as long as Georgia is in the team event, every competitor we choose is eligible for the individual title in the events in which they compete, including potentially the all-around if they compete in all 4 events.)

Fifth, I'll go ahead and ask the question you'll think at some point: "Why don't I see all these Olympic gymnasts competing in college?" The answer there is twofold. First, all college athletes, including gymnasts, must still be amateurs, even if they've competed at the Olympics or World Championships. That is, they can't have any sponsors, endorse products, or have participated in any events where they're paid to gymnasticate. (Yes, that's a word. I just made it up. English! It's a great language.) If a gymnast decides to cash in on their Olympic success by getting paid to put their likeness on a Wheaties box, they're deciding not to compete at the college level.

The other reason some "top gymnasts" don't do the college thing, however, is that they're just tired of gymnastics. Unlike most other college sports, collegiate gymnasts are actually near the end of their competitive careers, not the beginning. If you've been doing nothing but gymnastics 7 days a week every week since you were 12, you might decide, as some elite gymnasts do, that you just want to go to college and do the "college thing" without being an athlete. That's why most college gymnastics teams, even the really good ones, are made up of women who were not Olympians or former world champions.

Sixth, and finally, a note on strategery and the Gym Dogs in particular. Since, as I covered in my previous point, you're not dealing with the most elite gymnasts in the world at every spot on your team, your squad is naturally going to have strengths and weaknesses. This is where your coach comes into play. The head coach not only has to motivate her women to perform their best at the most crucial times, s/he has to decide which competitors are the best at which events and assemble her rotation roster for each meet.

For the top competitors, this is usually straightforward: your best vaulter always competes on vault, etc. Once you get past the top 2 or 3 competitors on each apparatus, however, the picture becomes much more murky. Which women have been performing better recently? Which have been practicing better during the week? Who has a nagging injury that you might want to rest for a bigger upcoming meet? A good head coach has to have a feel for roster management, which in many ways is more art than science.

For the Gym Dogs in 2013, this has meant that we had a steadily rotating group of competitors early in the year as Coach Durante shook out her roster. In fact, we've rarely even had one all-around competitor in any meet this year. As the season winds down, however, Coach Durante has tended to shift her rotations less, sticking to her most solid contributors in each event.

Also, since senior all-everything Noel Couch has been out with injury most of the season, Coach Durante has apparently decided to highlight her two best freshmen on the team, Brandie Jay and Brittany Rogers. Jay has competed in 3 events in several recent meets, and Rogers (one of those rare former Olympians who decided to compete in college) has competed in every event in each of the last 3 meets, winning the all-around title against Utah. Will this strategy work well enough to get the Gym Dogs to the Super Six this year? We can only hope! (And we can hope that Noel Couch gets healthy before the NCAA's.)

So, that's about it for the gymnastics primer... I hope it's been helpful. The Gym Dogs next take the mat on Sunday in Raleigh against NC State. Until then...

Go Dawgs!