Perspectives on the current and future landscape of collegiate men’s gymnastics

Q&A with Thom Glielmi, Blake Sun, Brandon Briones

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Fresh off its 2019 NCAA Championship run, Stanford men’s gymnastics looked to continue its form into the 2020 season. The top-ranked Cardinal started the season with several dominant wins — including finishing atop conference foes at the Pac-12 Invite in February and downing Air Force by a sizable margin in early March. Stanford was just one competition away from beginning its postseason run to repeat as national champions when COVID-19 suddenly canceled the season.

With financial concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, many colleges and universities, including Stanford, have had to make difficult decisions regarding the statuses of their respective varsity athletic programs. In June, the University announced it will discontinue 11 sports following the 2020-21 academic school year. While men’s gymnastics was not among those listed, other universities — namely Iowa, William & Mary and Minnesota — elected to discontinue the sport.

By the end of the 2021 school year, there will only be 12 NCAA men’s gymnastics teams left across the country, a 20% decrease from the year before.

On Sept. 14, the College Gymnastics Association (CGA) initiated the Stronger Together Campaign to help relieve the financial burdens of the remaining men’s gymnastics teams and to save the sport from extinction at the collegiate level. The Stanford Daily’s Jordan John Lee sat down with Cardinal head coach Thom Glielmi, senior team captain Blake Sun and reigning CGA Rookie of the Year sophomore Brandon Briones to discuss the importance of collegiate athletics, the Stronger Together campaign and the future of men’s gymnastics in college.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): A lot of schools have taken action to remove athletic programs in the face of growing financial concerns. What impact do you believe these decisions have on athletes and coaches for whom their sport has been removed?

Thom Glielmi (TG): It’s devastating and heartbreaking, especially for the athletes. They are committed to competing at the highest level and proudly representing their respective universities. It’s not just a place for them to train; it’s where they are having their collegiate experience. What we went through last year with missing the last two months of our season was upsetting for us, but knowing that some programs that have one year left are just done once the year is finished is just so devastating. 

More importantly, the history of those programs, especially some with tremendous history, are going to be lost. For someone who has competed at the collegiate level 30 years out, those are still the most fond memories of my collegiate experience: being a part of that team, embracing the challenges that were put onto us and becoming solid contributing members of society — using the skill sets that we learned in being part of a team at a university. 

Blake Sun (BS): I think Thom hit it on the spot; it’s really devastating. When we see these teams getting cut, it’s scary for us. All of us athletes have dreamed of being on a collegiate team and have played their sport for the love of it. Now, it seems that a part of them is being taken away from them, and that’s a hard thing to deal with. Imagine being promised to spend four years to compete as a student-athlete — you would almost feel a little betrayed. It’s heartbreaking. If gymnastics was cut from Stanford, I wouldn’t know what to do. The team has become my second family and home to me, and it’s a big part of my identity that would then be gone, so I can’t even imagine what these athletes are going through.

Brandon Briones (BB): It’s super devastating, especially since gymnastics is a sport that doesn’t have a whole lot of opportunities in the United States. And college is a great gateway for young athletes to build a future for themselves and progress not just in the sport but outside the sport as well. To see the opportunities become less and less with all these programs getting cut, it’s heartbreaking for sure for all different teams because gymnastics is a close-knit sport. It’s devastating for the future of men’s gymnastics even in the United States because college gymnastics is such a huge part of the United States participation outside of national competitions, world competitions and the Olympics — so it’s heartbreaking to see.

TSD: What has been the impact of coaches at the collegiate level on your development as a student-athlete?

BS: Back in high school, I was coached by one coach, so having that one perspective can be narrow-minded sometimes. Coming to Stanford, Thom, Syque Caesar and Mark Freeman — who have experience coaching at the NCAA level — have so much wisdom to share with you that it is different from competing in high school or as an individual. They really opened my eyes into trying different techniques or being open to listen to different corrections. They also taught me how to hold myself accountable, not to be lazy or anything and to also hold my teammates accountable because I have 20 other guys depending on me if I’m doing a routine. I owe a lot to them; I would not be where I am now without their help.

BB: I would echo what Blake said. I’m really thankful to be able to work with a group of such experienced and talented coaches. First of all in gymnastics, I’ve worked with a couple coaches in my junior career, and they are learning the ins and outs with me. Then, I come to Stanford, and these guys have seen it all. And they know what to tell me when I’m feeling good or when I’m not feeling good. They support me and give me a little extra push whenever I need it. They taught me a lot about hard work and being there for my team. Their leadership and their coaching is so invaluable.

TSD: How have the recent announcements from Iowa, William & Mary and Minnesota to cut their men’s gymnastics programs, among other sports, impacted the culture of collegiate gymnastics?

TG: From the coach’s perspective, there’s definitely been a rallying cry to the entire gymnastics community across the nation from alumni to gym owners to junior kids programs. They are all aware of the situation and are rallying to show their support in various ways whether it’s letter-writing, petitions or financially. We just want more opportunities because there are so many good junior athletes across the country, and it’s just a shame when we have to pass on a guy that we think would pan out in a year, but we just don’t have the roster spots, or there’s just no opportunities for them to find a spot at a university because there’s so few roster positions that are available. If colleges and universities look at the opportunities they are providing for these student-athletes, I think that’s where they need to pause and ask themselves, ‘Is there really no other way to right the ship other than cutting?’ We’re all putting together proposals for what that landscape would look like, and all of this is on the table. Also, there has been a push for many national governing bodies to hit the pause button so that we can figure this out.

BS: There has been tons of fundraising going around, and within us collegiate athletes, we’re using our social media platforms to spread the word and give people a little more perspective by, for example, comparing how many different NCAA programs there are for other sports. In 1969, there were over 200 men’s gymnastics programs, and now after this year, there will be only 12. So we are trying to get this going beyond the gymnastics community and saying how much we really love our sport and that there is another way other than cutting these sports. We’re just really banding together within the gymnastics community because we are a close-knit group of athletes. We know each other from across the country because we compete together all the time. I think it is mainly about getting the word out and showing how many opportunities it has given us and the opportunities it will give to young athletes, who are in middle school or high school and also dream of doing these things.

TSD: If Stanford happens to cut other sports including men’s gymnastics, what would you say to convince the administration to reverse their decision?

BS: If we got cut or they cut even more sports, honestly, I would say, ‘Do better’ — especially at Stanford where they truly believe that you can come here and have the best opportunity to excel academically and athletically. After three years, I have learned so much. It honestly has changed me and really made me into the person I am today, and I would not have any of these key experiences, any value of camaraderie or any type of leadership skills if it were not for Stanford. The bonds that I made through my time as a collegiate athlete and these relationships that I made with my teammates as well as other athletes are invaluable. They’re truly my best friends and we’re going to stay friends forever, and it means even more that we’ve been through highs and lows together. We’ve seen failure and success, and it’s just something you truly do not get through any other experience.

BB: The mission of the Athletics Department is supposed to be to provide opportunity for athletes academically and athletically, and I would also say to do better and try to re-evaluate and stick by the mission of the Department. Stanford Athletics has an amazing tradition and an amazing history of supporting Olympic athletes, and I don’t want to see that go away. I have only been on the team for one year and during my freshman year, I only got half a season. But even so, I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Everyone who is able to should be able to experience being on a college team.

TSD: On Sept. 19, National Gymnastics Day, members of the Stanford men’s gymnastics team participated in the CGA Stronger Together campaign to support the remaining collegiate gymnastics programs. What does participating in this campaign mean to you?

TG: I did my 10 push-ups — and they were perfect by the way since the challenge was called “The Perfect 10 Push-Up Challenge.” Anyway, we want to make people aware of where we are at. We are working together to find the solution, and we are working to try and keep opportunities out there for young gymnasts that are coming up. Not every young gymnast is going to be able to go to a collegiate program, but there are so many good kids out there that they are just not going to have that opportunity unless we figure out a way to grow the sport and save the programs that are out there now and then eventually grow the sport.

BS: We are just trying to spread the word and show solidarity for our sport. We are all in this together. We are a community and a family not only within our own team, but we are a gymnastics family all across the nation. We support each other even if we’re competing against them. We love the sport of gymnastics, and we love seeing beautiful gymnastics and all these skills done well, so we’re really trying to show that camaraderie throughout the entire nation. Hopefully, that will spread out to other sports so that they can join in.

TSD: What do you hope to see regarding the future of collegiate men’s gymnastics after the pandemic?

BS: I hope that these three schools [Iowa, William & Mary and Minnesota] cutting their programs really look back at this decision and hopefully try to find an alternative way. I hope they realize how many people they are impacting and how many opportunities they’re taking away from kids. We have kind of expected this since gymnastics is a dying sport, but we just never would have thought it would come this soon. Also, it is one of the most popular sports in the Olympics, and it’s crazy to think that in college, the excitement is almost non-existent. So I would hope that we can get more programs and offer people more opportunities and that these programs and these athletic departments stop kicking us while we’re down. They should be trying to protect us at all costs and make sure we don’t go extinct in every sense of the word.

BB: College gymnastics is one of the best opportunities that any gymnast can have in the United States. As a kid growing up in the sport, every young gymnast wants to be part of an NCAA gymnastics team … In the past decade, 80% of men on the Olympic team have come from the NCAA system, so it’s very important that the athletic directors are taking into account the importance of the sport. It’s much bigger than just one school; it’s important for our future. If it means the continuation of our sport, we are open to taking some measures to increase the popularity, increase viewership, anything that we’re able to do if it means creating more opportunity.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Contact Jordan John Lee at jjslee22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Jordan John Lee ’22 studies Biology and Classics and is a writer for the News and Sports sections of The Daily. He enjoys watching tennis, gymnastics, and his hometown LA sports, the Lakers and Dodgers. He loves all forms of coffee and loves to listen to new music! Contact him at jjslee22 ‘at’ stanford.edu.