Stanford men’s gymnastics: Building a culture, and then a dynasty

May 11, 2023, 7:25 p.m.

Ian Gunther can tell you exactly how the championship streak began — with an opponent’s improbable fall.

Gunther had just chalked his hands in preparation for a routine on rings. Going into the final rotation of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships, Stanford trailed four-time defending champion Oklahoma by nearly 4.5 points. To bridge the gap, Gunther and his teammates needed near-perfect execution and some help from the Sooners, who were across the gym completing their lineup on high bar.

The then-freshman wasn’t watching his competition, but he heard Oklahoma standout and future Olympian Yul Moldauer’s name being announced. Next came a collective gasp from the spectators. “I’m obviously focusing on my routine, but I knew he fell,” Gunther recalled. “I knew he messed up, and in my head I’m like, ‘Alright, I think they just opened the door right there.’”

And so he took advantage of it. 

“I did the best routine in my life,” he said. The Cardinal narrowly outscored Oklahoma to capture their first NCAA title since 2011.

Eight months earlier, the team had made a decision to defy the odds. In a preseason coaches’ poll, Oklahoma received 19 of 20 first-place votes. Stanford, coming off a disappointing 2018 season, received only one, which was cast by its head coach, Thom Glielmi.

As it turned out, Glielmi’s gymnasts were just getting started. They are underdogs no longer, having bested No. 3 Michigan last month to claim their fourth national title in as many years. Their 2022-2023 results were so dominant — a second straight conference championship and numerous individual accolades — that few outside the team realize how many obstacles were overcome on the path to a four-peat.

And in a collegiate athletic landscape upended by NIL and the transfer portal, the men’s gymnastics program has given Stanford Athletics a consistent success story amidst the ups and downs of its more high-profile teams. 

The Cardinal’s defiant run stemmed from a 2018 preseason trip, time spent introducing the frosh to expectations and choosing a team mantra: “New Era.” (This year’s motto: “Set the Standard.”) Hours spent together, in and out of the gym, developed a strong culture.

“I know that when they go and compete, I trust them with my entire life,” Matthew Szot ’22 M.S. ’23 said of his teammates. “And I know that they’re going to do exactly what they’ve been training for and exactly what they’ve been working for.”

The 2018-2019 team was comprised of experienced upperclassmen and a highly touted freshman class. Among them were future All-Americans, national team members and an Olympian and world champion. Five years later, Szot said, not a single athlete on the roster knows what it’s like to lose in NCAA team competition.

Gymnast Ian Gunther performs on the rings, with a Penn State gym banner partially visible in the background.
Graduate student Ian Gunther ’22 M.S. ’23 competes on rings at the NCAA Championships last month. Gunther was also part of the apparatus’ lineup in 2019 as a freshman, when Stanford defeated four-time defending champion Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of Heather Weikel)

10 seniors graduated after last year’s third consecutive championship, and only three elected to compete for another season. Added to this upheaval was the pressure of Stanford’s recent dominance.

“Having that target on our back, I think right off the bat, from a mental and emotional perspective, I think that’s a lot, especially on our younger guys,” Szot said.

The team was also plagued by lingering and new injuries for the duration of the season. In one 24-hour period in March, two gymnasts sustained season-ending injuries, including fifth-year Brody Malone, a two-time NCAA all-around champion, national champion, 2020 Olympian and world champion, who was injured while competing in Germany with the national team.

Missing athletes like Malone who were expected to compete in five or six rotations come NCAAs, Glielmi looked to gymnasts farther down the lineup to fill in the gaps as the Cardinal pursued its sixth national title during his 21 seasons heading the program. At the championship meet hosted by Penn State, 14 team members were called on to complete two routines each on average. 

“When they had the opportunity, they were ready and they embraced it and they took advantage of the opportunity to be in a lineup,” said Glielmi, who coached the 2020 Olympic team. “And they did their job.”

Stanford gymnasts “hit,” or successfully executed, 27 of 30 routines at NCAAs this year, Glielmi said, a performance which speaks to their carefully built team culture where each athlete is integrated and responsible.

Beyond the team-oriented mentality, Glielmi’s strategy encourages gymnasts — 10 of whom are either currently or formerly in the U.S. national team system — to push the difficulty in their routines and contend for coveted spots in the lineup. While this requires some early-season adjustment, the Cardinal’s postseason execution has helped the them fend off challenges from the nation’s other top teams. 

Glielmi emphasizes that in training and intra-squads (simulated competitions held on meet weeks to determine who will compete), the entire roster plays a role by pushing those ahead of them to execute the best routine they can. The result is a strong lineup on each of the six apparatuses and an equally deep bench. But the system also fosters reliance on a range of athletes, especially important in a sport where injuries are prevalent.

At this year’s NCAAs, younger members of the team were pivotal. Sophomore Nicolas Kuebler and freshman Asher Hong earned individual titles on floor and vault, respectively, while the Cardinal also racked up a dozen All-American nods. Stanford led from the first rotation, ultimately topping the field by almost 3 points.

Three gymnasts pose while holding the Illinois, Georgia and Texas state flags.
Graduate student Matthew Szot, fifth-year Brody Malone and graduate student Ian Gunther pose at a home meet against Cal in March. Freshmen when Stanford won the 2019 Championships, the trio has been on every team in the four-peat. (Photo: GLEN MITCHELL/ISI Photos)

Five years after starting a “New Era,” the gymnasts who have been on all four championship teams are proud of their achievements, but perhaps even more proud to see the standard they worked so hard to set being upheld.

“It just teaches you to be a team player and to be a leader,” Gunther said of the team culture. “No matter how many events you’re competing, zero or six… it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets a ring at the end of the day when we win.”

After each season, Szot said, most people talk about scores and titles. But what he will remember most are his teammates.

“I think a lot of these guys are known for their gymnastics,” said Szot, who was recently voted “Best Team Player” by his peers. “But I think in reality, they should be known for the character that they uphold and [what] incredible people they are… and the positive impact that they have on the school, this program and the entire world.”

Glielmi agrees, crediting much of the team’s tenacity and cohesion to veterans Gunther, Malone and Szot, whose legacy he believes will persist long after their graduation. 

Maybe next season, Glielmi said, if they tie Nebraska’s record of five consecutive NCAA Championships (1979-83), the Cardinal can start thinking of themselves as a dynasty. But with a young, talented roster, they are far from done and want to continue drawing attention to their often overlooked sport.

“We’ve got some stallions in the stables still,” Glielmi said. “So we’re gonna keep trying to win championships.”

A previous version of this article misspelled Nicolas Kuebler’s name. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling. The Daily regrets this error.

Madeline Grabb '25 is a senior staff writer from Sagaponack, New York who previously served as Sports Managing Editor for Vol. 263. She is studying communication and history. Contact her at sports 'at'

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