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Everything you need to know about the NCAA gymnastics championship

It’s 2024, meaning that the Summer Olympics are just around the corner. If you are like most American sports fans, this is probably the only time you’re going to care about gymnastics until 2028 rolls around. Gymnastics is a popular yet difficult to understand sport, but U.S. dominance and the star power of Simone Biles revives interest every four years.

What most people don’t know is that there is intense gymnastics competition every year, not just at the Olympics, and not even just at the elite level. In fact, some of the most entertaining and exciting gymnastics competition happens in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA gymnastics championship is happening this week (in fact, when this article is published, some championship action will have already happened), and if you want to sound extra knowledgeable during the Olympics, you’ll want to follow it. Plus, several Tokyo and soon-to-be Paris Olympians will be competing, and it’s a highly entertaining sports event.

NCAA gymnastics competition takes place in stages. First, there is the regular season, which is mostly in-conference dual meets (competitions between two teams). Next are conference championships. The top 36 teams from the regular season and conference championships advance to regionals, and the top eight teams from regionals advance to nationals.

At nationals, the eight teams compete in two four-team semifinals, with the top two teams from each semifinal advancing to the NCAA championship final (akin to the “Final Four” of March Madness). The winner of that meet is the NCAA champion of the season.

I’ll be going through each team that’s qualified to nationals, semifinal by semifinal, plus some individual athletes to keep an eye on!

Semifinal One:

No. 2 LSU

The LSU Tigers are coming to NCAAs as the number two team in the country, headlined by the top all-around gymnast in the NCAA, Haleigh Bryant. They won the SEC championship this year, won their regional in Fayetteville and should likely cruise through their semifinal as the number one seed. LSU is a team known for performing better at home (thanks to some inflated scoring) and crumbling under pressure in the postseason, but that hasn’t shown thus far this year. LSU also features all-around star Aleah Finnegan, who will be competing for the Philippines at the Olympics later this year. Occasionally, the Tigers struggle on bars and beam, and will need to hit every routine to challenge for a national title.

No. 3 California

The Cal Bears have been this year’s breakout team. Cal has hovered somewhere between tenth and seventh nationally for the past few years, but this year, it broke records left and right for its highest regular-season finish in program history, the PAC-12 regular season title, and won its regional (at home in Berkeley) handily. Cal is led by all-arounders, and its two stars are eMjae Frazier and Mya Lauzon, who have consistently put up monstrous scores. Like LSU, Cal should make it to finals barring major errors. The main question mark is vault, where Cal has a lower scoring ceiling than its competitors. Its bars and beam are phenomenal though and no matter what, Cal is on track for a program-best finish to its season.

No. 7 Arkansas

For the past few seasons, Arkansas is a team that has been good but feels like it should have been great. This season, the Razorbacks found their footing. In 2012 Olympian Jordan Wieber’s fifth year as head coach, Arkansas is returning to Nationals on the back of a lights-out home regional. Now, the NCAA final may be out of reach, as Arkansas needs to be practically flawless to stand a chance, but it certainly has the ability to put up a very competitive score and prove itself as a team to watch in the ever-competitive SEC.

No. 8 Stanford

The Cinderella story of this year’s NCAA gymnastics season is Stanford. It’s a team that usually ends up somewhere between 15 and 20 in final season rankings. They entered the postseason unseeded and ranked at no. 19, and upset their way to Nationals. This year, it is guaranteed at least a no. 8 finish to the season. Stanford is led by the sensational Chloe Widner, who sealed the deal on Stanford’s upset performance in regionals with a perfect 10 on floor. Stanford is certainly the underdog in this championship, having not yet reached that magic 198 score required to be truly competitive in this field, but their postseason run has been nothing short of astounding and if there’s one thing that regionals taught us, it’s that you should never count the Cardinal out.

Semifinal Two:

No. 1 Oklahoma

Oklahoma is the overwhelming favorite to win the National Championship. The team looks practically unbeatable. This year, the Sooners have shattered practically every record there is, from the highest national qualifying score to the highest individual meet score in NCAA history. Numerous gymnasts, from star beam worker Ragan Smith to all-arounder Jordan Bowers, are practically perfect 10 machines. It would take Oklahoma counting a fall, possibly multiple falls, for any other team to win. For context, if they win this year, it’ll be Oklahoma’s third NCAA championship in a row. Basically, the odds of Oklahoma winning are extremely high, and if it doesn’t win, it’ll be quite a shock.

No. 4 Florida

The Florida Gators are one of the blue blood programs of NCAA gymnastics. They were runner-ups at last year’s Nationals, but this year, they are without stars like Trinity Thomas and Kayla DiCello (Thomas graduated and she and DiCello are making a run for the Olympics). Florida has had a slow burner of a season, slowly improving week to week and sneaking up to a no. 4 ranking, before putting on a show at its own home regional in Gainesville. Florida’s team is headlined by Leanne Wong, who has a 10.0 to her name on all four events. The Gators have their work cut out for them getting past Utah to join Oklahoma in the final, and if they do make it, they will need to put on the performance of a lifetime to challenge for the title.

No. 5 Utah

Utah has appeared in every NCAA championship since the tournament’s inception. The Utes have had their fair share of drama this year, with head coach Tom Farden getting fired after abuse allegations. They’ve looked rocky at times, but new head coach Carley Dockendorf has led her team to its 48th national championship. Utah’s roster also features Tokyo Olympian Grace McCallum, and last year’s national all-around and beam champion Maile O’Keefe. Utah has struggled a bit on vault and bars this season, and will need to hit both if it wants to beat Florida and secure a place in the final.

No. 6 Alabama

Alabama drew the short straw ending up in this semifinal. It is a great team, but surpassing both Florida and Utah is a tall order. They’ve been quietly excellent for the entire season, and will absolutely be able to capitalize if any other team makes mistakes. The problem is that the scoring potential might not be there for Alabama to advance if every team hits to the best of their ability. Alabama’s gymnast to watch is Luisa Blanco, who will be representing Colombia at the Olympics this summer. While it’s tempting to look away from Alabama and focus on Utah and Florida in this semifinal, don’t count out the Crimson Tide. They are right there if any other team falters, and have the ability to put up big scores when it counts.

Individuals:

Along with deciding which teams will advance to the national final, the semi-finals are also what determine the individual NCAA championships. After the semi-finals are over, we will know who the NCAA all-around, vault, bars, beam and floor champions are. Competing alongside the eight teams discussed here are individual athletes who qualified to nationals based on having the highest score at regionals. A big name is Oregon State’s Jade Carey, who won gold on floor at the Tokyo Olympics. She is one of the favorites to win the all-around, along with Haleigh Bryant and Jordan Bowers. Star Minnesota gymnast Mya Hooten is a threat on vault, as is Michigan gymnast Sierra Brooks. On bars, the title is Audrey Davis’ (Oklahoma) to lose, but Missouri’s Mara Titarsolej has a can’t-miss bars set (she also has the accolade of being the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 on bars at both LIU and Missouri). Beam is likely to be a battle between Maile O’Keefe and Ragan Smith, both of whom have gone 10.0 on numerous occasions. However, Mya Lauzon, Chloe Widner and Konnor McClain (LSU) also have beam 10.0s to their names. On floor, keep an eye on Carey again, as well as Kentucky super senior Raena Worley, who has led the nation on floor all year.

Editor’s note: I wrote this before the semifinals happened. I was incredibly incorrect about many things. In my defense, I did not expect Oklahoma to implode quite in the way it did. My bad.

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