College Sports

What ESPN’s Kathy Johnson Clarke said about gymnastics future, NCAA championship in town

UCLA gymnast broke the internet with a perfect routine

Katelyn Ohashi, a UCLA gymnast from the Seattle area, blew up social media on Saturday after her dynamic floor routine earned a perfect 10 score at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim. The video has had close to 20 million views on Twitter.
Up Next
Katelyn Ohashi, a UCLA gymnast from the Seattle area, blew up social media on Saturday after her dynamic floor routine earned a perfect 10 score at the Collegiate Challenge in Anaheim. The video has had close to 20 million views on Twitter.

A four-ring circus.

That’s how former Olympian Kathy Johnson Clarke described what fans would see attending the NCAA women’s gymnastics championships at the Fort Worth Convention Center this weekend.

“It never gets old, watching NCAA gymnastics just gets better and better every year,” said Johnson Clarke, who won two Olympic medals at the 1984 Games and is calling the event for ESPN.

“The stakes get higher. The parity among teams gets better, which creates the drama. It’s some of the most exciting sports you can watch. Yes, the girls are in leotards and there’s crystals and makeup and hair, but beneath all of that is such grit and talent and power, all of the things that for too long they didn’t associate with women’s sports.”

The action gets started on Thursday with open team practices. UCLA, LSU, Utah and Michigan will have the floor from 11 a.m. to 12:50 p.m. followed by Oklahoma, Denver, Georgia and Oregon State from 1:30 p.m. to 3:20 p.m.

Friday’s first semifinal starts at noon and the second semifinal gets underway at 6 p.m. The team finals will be at 6 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available for all sessions or single sessions. All-session tickets start at $55, and single-session tickets start at $20 for Friday’s sessions and $25 for Saturday.

Johnson Clarke feels it’s must-see action for casual sports fans who may not be too familiar with the gymnastics scene outside of tuning in to the Olympics once every four years.

This tournament will feature previous Olympians such as UCLA’s Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian (a Dallas native), social media sensations such as UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi and top college gymnasts in Oklahoma’s Maggie Nichols and LSU’s Sarah Finnegan.

Oh, and don’t forget about legendary coaches such as UCLA’s Valorie Kondos Field, who is expected to retire after this year, or Georgia’s Courtney Kupets Carter, who won two medals at the 2004 Olympics.

“We have it all for you really. It’s a great television show,” Johnson Clarke said. “We’ve got incredible stories. We’ve got legends in the sport here, whether they’re coaching or competing. You’re going to have it all. It can be a truly magical experience.

“This is a can’t-miss opportunity for people in the area to really be entertained. It’s pure heart and guts. It’s a don’t-miss if you live in the area. Plus, Texas is such a huge gymnastics state with so many gyms there. Hopefully we’ll fill those stands. These athletes deserve that. They deserve to be in a packed arena.”

Johnson Clarke went on to talk about a number of topics in the gymnastics world with the Star-Telegram.

Texas produces so many high-profile gymnasts, yet no Power Five school in the state has a gymnastics program. Have you thought about why that is? “Do I think about it? If you could see my face right now [laughs]. I constantly think about it. It drives me crazy. There is an effort and they’re trying to grow the sport. It’s crazy with the money in the state and in the university system … you wouldn’t have to recruit out of state. A lot of kids would love to stay in their home state for school. It makes no sense that there isn’t a major school with a gymnastics program in Texas. Texas Women’s is doing a phenomenal job, but it’d help the sport by having at least one or two others. There is an active push to convince schools to add gymnastics.”

How has the sport recovered from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal? “The challenge is to unwind everything that is intertwined, bad and good. Just because there’s some bad intertwined doesn’t mean the good isn’t there. It’s tricky to unwind it and to shine light on the good, but also not forget that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. There’s no truer statement, so we can’t forget it. We’ve got to make sure we never see that again, or reduce all likelihood or possibility of allowing a bad guy or bad woman to hide in plain sight in our sport. There’s things we can do and that’s why you’ve got critics, as you should, who continue to drive that story. It’s not to try to damper our sport, but to make sure we don’t forget.

“We can and we are going to be better. Many of us are out there holding people’s feet to the flame. We want all the little girls and little boys to participate in this sport. It’s great for them and we can and will do a better job taking care of them. The time is now to grow the sport in every way we can and make sure we’re still doing everything to make it a safe environment.”

There’s a lot of great stories in the sport, too, right? “The University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC, is losing its gymnastics program and it was competing for a national championship last weekend. UIC just fell short of winning it to Lindenwood. And the Lindenwood parents sitting in the crowd, their kids, recognize it’s the end of the UIC program and started changing, ‘UIC! UIC! UIC!’ ... This is the best of our sport. Our community -- we care. What a great act by Lindenwood because it knew what was far more important that night. So that’s why I say the time is now to support this sport and help grow it and celebrate it. If you’re new to it, don’t miss it. All of these meets should be primetime.”

Who should fans keep an eye on this weekend? “All of the schools have their ‘stars,’ but Oklahoma and UCLA are certainly the favorites and have the highest score potential on paper. I know their lineups. I know their routines and they have the highest scoring potential across the board.

“But it’s gymnastics. There are flaws and the judges have to be on their game. All the best teams are right here and there’ll be minute deductions that’ll literally separate these teams and individuals. Every single athlete in that lineup is going to factor in. That’s just the coolest thing about college gymnastics is the value every single athlete has.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram