In 2019, when the Ithaca College gymnastics team finished in fifth place nationally and won their first individual–national championship since 2011, the team seemed poised for success thanks to a strong group of veterans and promising young stars.
However, two years later, and due to the cancellation of the national championships in 2020 and the entire season in 2021, the team is very different from what it was so recently. Of the 23 team members, 16 have never competed at the college level before, including 12 freshmen.
Head coach Richard Suddaby admitted he was not entirely sure how the season would go as he had yet to see most of the team compete, but said that he had a lot of faith in the athletes.
“There are a lot of unknowns [into the season]”, Suddaby said. “But I feel like our talent level is quite high.”
The first step of the season, Suddaby said, will be figuring out what the team has in new members. He said he knew they could all be taught, but first he had to figure out what they needed to learn.
“They’re very coachable, but you don’t always know what they don’t know,” Suddaby said. “It’s a pretty big transition. [from high school to college gymnastics]and so we try to make sure that we teach them the things that they need.
Suddaby also said the team is getting strong leadership from returning athletes, like junior Cameryn Nichols, who won the 2020 National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (NCGA) Rookie of the Year.
Nichols, who also won three NCGA All-American awards in her freshman season, said she and other returning team members were just trying to help freshman gymnasts get through high school. in college competition.
“College training is very different from high school training,” Nichols said. “We focus on training smarter, not necessarily harder.”
Nichols’ first encounter was two years ago and she said she knew what the environment was like at competitions. She said she wanted to help her new teammates be ready for this moment.
“I remember being a freshman and the first meeting was such a shock,” Nichols said. “But the energy and the encouragement from the team was all there, and I think once we start competing we’ll be really great.”
Suddaby said the juniors and seniors on the team are doing a great job of attracting new athletes so far.
“[The returners] are stepping up, and I’m really impressed with their leadership,” Suddaby said. “We have excellent leadership on the pitch… that’s a definite advantage.”
Alongside Nichols, senior Julia O’Sullivan stepped forward to take on a leadership role. O’Sullivan, who last competed as a sophomore, said she’s looking forward to getting back to competing and seeing what the team has in new members.
O’Sullivan added that she thinks the comebacks are a much better group than they were two years ago. Although they were without a season last year, she said the break gave them time to improve their mental game.
“We definitely took the time to reflect on the things that worked and didn’t work in the pre-COVID season,” O’Sullivan said. “Now that we know what worked physically and mentally, we’re already a step ahead of what we were, ready to take it all back.”
O’Sullivan said she and her fellow returning gymnasts are trying to transfer those lessons learned to new team members. She said the best way to teach them is to simply lead by example.
“We show them where we should be along the way,” O’Sullivan said. “Showing them confidence, composure… and getting them to be more of a team than an individual is the most important thing.
Moving from high school gymnastics to college can be difficult due to the shift from individual competition to team competition, Nichols and O’Sullivan said. That’s why O’Sullivan said she tries to focus on teaching her new teammates how to be on the team.
“Before college, you were on a team, but you were competing against each other,” O’Sullivan said. “Now, yes, you’re up there on your own, but your individual scores are what will make your team win, so represent your school and your team.”
In collegiate gymnastics, each team competes against six gymnasts in each event, and the final scores are calculated by the sum of each team member’s scores. At the end of the season, the top three teams from each region go to the national championships.
While Suddaby said the goal each season is to get to the Nationals, that is particularly important this year as the Championship fixture will be held here at South Hill.
O’Sullivan said she thinks Ithaca College, which is hosting the nationals this year, makes the team want to be there even more than usual.
“Hosting the Nationals this year is a bit more motivation to get there,” O’Sullivan said. “We have high expectations to qualify for the national championships and then once we get there we will do our best to win.”
Although he said there were challenges ahead for the team, Suddaby said he knew of all the other schools the team would face off against ahead of the Nationals that were in the same situation.
“This whole region has no [compete in 2021]so it will be quite interesting to see how that plays out,” Suddaby said.
Nichols also said knowing that other teams have had similar challenges makes her excited for a season that is going to be different from any that have come before it, but she still knows what the team needs to do this. season.
“I have high expectations for the team,” Nichols said. “And I think all my teammates do too. We hold each other accountable in the gym, we make sure everyone is working. So we all have high expectations of each other.