Happy New Year, Dawg fans! It’s finally that time of year we’ve all been waiting and longing for!* It’s Gym Dogs game week!
This article will be the first in a three-part season preview for the Gym Dogs. In this opening edition, I’ll be starting at the very beginning: the basics of the sport, and the schedule the Gym Dogs will face in 2017.
I like to start with the basics, because even though the Gym Dogs are extremely well-supported (and, in fact, frequently draw more per meet than the men’s basketball team does for their games), we’re always looking to expand the fan base even more. And the sport of college gymnastics does differ from what you might be used to watching in the Olympics every 4 years.
So without further ado, let’s jump right into it!
* - Well, since the football team played
Nicholls State Ole Miss, anyway.
The Basics of College Gymnastics
A collegiate gymnastics meet is made up of 4 events: Vault, Uneven Bars, Balance Beam, and Floor Exercise. These are the same events you’re probably accustomed to seeing in women’s gymnastics in the Olympics, so I won’t cover the actual apparatuses themselves (but you can google them if you’d like to see a visual example of them). The order in which I’ve listed the events is what’s called the “Olympic order,” and it’s the order in which the home team usually competes in the events during meets.
Each team only competes on one apparatus at a time (called a “rotation”), so when the home team is only competing against one other team (called a “dual meet,” and extremely common in the SEC), the away team performs its rotations in the following order: Bars, Vault, Floor, Beam. When there are 3+ teams competing in a meet, all teams use the Olympic order, but they just start on different apparatuses for the first rotation. So, for rotation 1, team 1 might start on vault, team 2 on bars, team 3 on beam, and team 4 on floor. Then, for rotation 2, team 1 would move to bars, team 2 to beam, team 3 to floor, and team 4 to vault, and so forth for the rest of the meet.
Having more than 4 teams in a meet usually isn’t ideal, since there are only 4 apparatuses to compete on at once, but it does happen, most notably during the NCAA regional and national meets at the end of the year. To accommodate the additional teams, a bye rotation is added for each additional team beyond 4. So, if you have 6 teams competing in the meet, each team will have 2 bye rotations spread around their rotation schedule.
The Differences Between College and Olympic Gymnastics
If you’re used to watching Olympic gymnastics, the first thing you might notice is that the difficulty level in college gymnastics is a bit lower than the Olympic (also called “elite”) level. In addition to less difficult skills, the routines will be a little bit shorter than in the Olympics. For example, floor exercise usually has 3 tumbling passes in college, whereas you usually see 4 in the Olympics. This is the case for a few reasons.
First, the NCAA still uses the “old” scoring system, where a 10.0 is a perfect score. The elite/Olympic level moved many years ago to a different system that has no highest-possible-value “perfect score,” but college still does maintain this system. As a result, a routine has a “starting value” that is usually 10.0 or 9.95, and deductions are made from that starting value based on mistakes that the gymnast makes. Some mistakes are worth more than others (0.1, 0.2, and 0.5 deductions, among others), but the bottom line is that if a given routine has a starting value of 10, there is very little benefit in attempting more difficult routines.
The NCAA does periodically change the starting value of some skills to encourage gymnasts to perform more difficult routines, but in general, you’re going to be seeing routines that are a bit less physically challenging than at the Olympic level.
As an example, compare this vault, by Simone Biles at the Olympics this past summer, to Gym Dog (and fellow Olympian) Brittany Rogers’ perfect 10 vault at the UCLA/Stanford meet last year. Biles’ vault was described as “close to perfect” by the announcer, and it was indeed very impressive and very difficult. She didn’t stick her landing, though. So in college, her vault would have had a 10.0 start value, and the tiny hop on the landing would probably have resulted in her getting a score of something like 9.95. Rogers, however, attempted a much easier vault, and nailed it well enough to score a perfect 10 in the college system. So, there’s almost no incentive (and actually more like a penalty) for attempting skills that are more difficult than the easiest 10.0 starting value skills.
Second, college gymnastics partially compensates for the lower difficulty level by having a strong artistic focus in its routines. This is most readily apparent on the floor exercise, where college routines are very “artistic” as compared to Olympic-level routines, which I would describe as more “athletic.”
Compare this floor routine, again by Simone Biles in Rio this past summer, to this perfect 10 floor routine performed 2 years ago by the amazing LSU gymnast Lloimincia Hall. Biles’ routine is extremely challenging and athletic, but Hall’s floor routine is just straight entertaining as hell. I mean, Hall’s tumbling passes were performed perfectly, as well, but they’re not in the same league as Biles’ passes from an athletic standpoint. And Biles’ routine likely would have been something like a 9.90 in college, since she didn’t really stick any of her landings on the tumbling passes. As I said previously, the floor exercise is where the difference between college and the Olympics is most readily apparent. At times, it’s almost like you’re watching a completely different sport.
Third, college gymnastics is, generally speaking, a much more physically grueling competition format, with less practice time to prepare. At the elite/Olympic level, most gymnasts only compete a handful of times a year, and those competitions are relatively spaced out on the calendar. To prepare for those competitions, however, gymnasts usually practice at least 40 hours a week, if not more.
In college, teams compete over a 10-week regular season, with no (automatic) bye weeks. And in Georgia’s case, we usually tuck in an extra meet on the Monday of MLK weekend, and the SEC Championship meet is the week after the regular season concludes, so we’re actually competing 12 times in 11 consecutive weeks. And the NCAA limits us to 20 hours a week of organized practice time. (Plus, you know, there’s that “school” thing, which ain’t no joke.) So college gymnasts have less time to prepare for a more compressed competition schedule.
As a result, the focus of college gymnastics coaches and athletes is not only on perfecting routines, but keeping the gymnast’s body healthy and in prime competitive condition for an extended period of time. As a result, you’ll usually see college gymnasts performing a lot more with braces and various protective gear on their bodies. This is most noticeable on bars, where almost all gymnasts wear protective gear on their wrists and hands, as can be seen in this video from last year. (In spite of the fact that Gracie Cherrey is first misidentified as an Arkansas gymnast in this video, and later has her name misspelled, the SEC Network actually has usually been amazing in their gymnastics coverage. It’s been light-years ahead of what we had before the SECN.)
Fourth, and perhaps the most important difference in college gymnastics, is that the focus is strongly on the team’s performance versus one individual’s performance. This is pretty much a complete 180 from the elite/Olympic level, where a gymnast does compete on a team, but the awards usually considered most important are the individual awards. In college, however, it’s all about the team.
To emphasize this point, all you have to do is look at the ten national championship banners hanging from the rafters in Stegeman Coliseum. They’re for team championships, not individual ones. (For the record, we’ve had 20 different gymnasts win a total of 42 individual national championships in our history, which is a lot of dang banners, and I admit it would look pretty awesome to hang those, too.)
This is reflected in how results are reported in college gymnastics. The individual winners in each meet are usually the “b” part of the story, if not an outright footnote. The results are always reported in terms of which team won. And a team’s score is calculated by adding up the top 5 scores for each team on each apparatus. (There are 6 total competitors for each team on each apparatus, so the lowest score gets dropped.)
This pendulum swings both ways, too, since your teammates tend to give you a lot more support in practice, and you tend to develop a lot more camaraderie on your team than you typically see in elite gymnastics. Also, a lot of top-level college gymnasts come from a gym with only 2 or 3 gymnasts who are really at their level in terms of ability. In college, every woman on the team is at your level, if not better. So that’s an adjustment a lot of college freshmen have to make, and it can either be good or bad, honestly, depending on how you respond to that competitive pressure.
So those are the primary differences that you’ll see between college and the Olympics, if you haven’t regularly watched college gymnastics before. But when will you be able to see the Gym Dogs competing this year? And against whom? Well, I’m glad you asked! Let’s move on to...
The Gym Dogs 2017 Schedule
(home meets in bold)
- Friday, January 6 - @LSU (7 PM, SEC Network)
- Friday, January 13 - @Auburn (7 PM, SEC Network)
- Monday, January 16 - vs. NC State (2 PM, SEC Network+ streaming)
- Friday, January 20 - vs. Arkansas (7 PM, SEC Network)
- Friday, January 27 - vs. Missouri (7 PM, SEC Network+ streaming)
- Friday, February 3 - vs. Kentucky (7 PM, SEC Network)
- Friday, February 10 - @Florida (7 PM, SEC Network)
- Friday, February 17 - GymQuarters Mardi Gras Invitational vs. LSU, Oklahoma, and Missouri @St. Charles, MO (7:30 PM, no TV)
- Friday, February 24 - @Oklahoma (8 PM, Fox Sports Network)
- Sunday, March 5 - vs. Alabama (2 PM, SEC Network)
- Saturday, March 11 - vs. Utah (4 PM, SEC Network+ streaming)
- Saturday, March 18 - SEC Championship Meet @Jacksonville, FL (ESPNU/SEC Network)
- Saturday, April 1 - NCAA Regionals (TV TBA)
- Friday & Saturday, April 14-15 - NCAA Nationals (ESPNU)
As I said previously, the advent of the SEC Network has marked a massive advance in TV and online coverage of SEC gymnastics. The SEC Network covers many meets live on TV, and even if a meet isn’t televised live, every meet at a SEC venue is always available live via the SEC Network+ streaming package at espn3.com. So if you see “SEC Network” beside one of the meets above, it means it will be televised live on the SEC Network. If you see “SEC Network+ streaming” beside a meet, it means you’ll be able to log in and watch the meet live at espn3.com if you have access to that package. (Usually, if you get the SEC Network on your TV package, you will have access to the streaming content, as well, though this isn’t always the case.)
The Gym Dogs only have two regular season meets this year that aren’t at SEC venues, and the meet at Oklahoma will be televised on Fox Sports, probably on the regional channel that covers Oklahoma (whichever one that is). And the GymQuarters Invitational doesn’t appear to have any TV or internet streaming coverage at this time, which is unfortunate (and makes me realize how spoiled I’ve become in just 2 short years to be able to see virtually every meet live, even away meets). But I’ll keep y’all updated if that changes as the season rolls on.
As usual for our ladies, the Gym Dogs will be facing one of the toughest schedules in the country. Not only are we facing our usual SEC gauntlet (and the SEC is easily the best gymnastics conference in the country), but we’ll be taking on defending national champion Oklahoma (twice!) and 9-time national champion Utah. In total, we’ll be competing against 4 of the other 5 teams that made the Super Six (the NCAA team finals) last season.
This schedule isn’t for the faint of heart. But we’re Georgia, dammit. We have more national championships than any other gymnastics team in the country. The best teams should be excited about playing us, not the other way around. (And we frequently see that this is the case, with opposing teams usually “giving us their best shot” week in and week out.) We’re the Alabama football of the gymnastics world, and we schedule like it. That’s a good thing in my book.
Also, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t hurt our national ranking to be competing against these elite teams every week. In gymnastics, the only rankings that are poll-driven (i.e. voted on) are the preseason rankings. As soon as the season starts, the national rankings are mathematically calculated based on your actual scores posted during the season. So, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing the best teams week in and week out, or even if you lose a few meets here and there. Your overall score is what matters, and is against which you are compared to other teams, so if you keep that at a very high level, you’re good. In fact, I think competing against the best teams in the country every week helps you keep your own game at a top level, so in my opinion, our difficult schedule actually helps us. The home slate isn’t exactly as exciting as it could be, but we do get Alabama and Utah at home at the end of the season. Those are 2 of our biggest 3 rivals, so I guess I can’t complain too much.
That about wraps it up for Part 1 of my season preview, covering the basics of college gymnastics and reviewing the schedule we’ll be seeing the Gym Dogs tackle this year. In the next two parts of this week’s preview series, I’ll be covering our coaching staff and some of the changes they’ve made coming into this season (SPOILER ALERT: #TheProcess will make an appearance!), and our 2017 Gym Dogs roster and my expectations for them.
Until next time...