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Ragan Smith of Oklahoma competes in the floor exercise during the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

PA

Ragan Smith had no shortage of options when it came to choosing a college, as tends to happen when you’re an elite gymnast with a national title on your resume.

One option was not available to Smith. He does not exist.

Texas, the site of this week’s NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, the state that produced Olympic champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles, the state that has more than 20 currently Division-ranked colleges and universities I, the state with some of the most premier gymnastics programs in the country, if not the world, has exactly six women’s gymnastics scholarships available, all at Division II Texas Woman’s University.

That meant Smith, who moved from Georgia to suburban Dallas at age 13 to train at the gym owned by former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal, had to leave Texas to compete at the Division I level.

“All of these big clubs are in Texas, and you’d think (the big schools) would have a program,” Smith said. “But they really don’t.”

Things went well for Smith, now a junior at Oklahoma. She and the Sooners will go for their fourth national title in eight years on Saturday when they take on Florida, Auburn and Utah at Dickie’s Arena, the opulent facility less than three miles from the TCU campus.

The Horned Frogs offer 13 women’s varsity sports, including horseback riding, rifle shooting and triathlon. Just no gymnastics.

It’s the same in Texas (which offers rowing among other things), Baylor (which offers acrobatics and tumbling, a cousin of artistic gymnastics), Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston and Rice and all the rest. Contacted this week by The Associated Press, representatives from Texas and Texas A&M both said there were no plans to offer women’s gymnastics as a varsity sport.

Although many schools have student-run gymnastics clubs, they are not affiliated with the athletic department and must do their own fundraising to survive, which means top gymnasts like Smith and Auburn senior Drew Watson must look elsewhere if they want to continue. their careers.

Watson grew up in Tyler, Texas, and would have preferred to stay closer to home. Instead, she settled in Auburn, more than nine hours away, a trip her parents rarely made early in her career.

It was the same for most of her club teammates at Texas East Gymnastics. When it came time to go to college, they scattered all over the country, from Kentucky to Ohio, from Arkansas to Florida.

That’s the way it is for almost every top level 10 or elite gymnast in the Lone Star State. Seven of the eight teams that qualified for national championships this week had at least one Texas native on their roster, with a handful of others as individual qualifiers like Arkansas senior Kennedy Hambrick and silver medalist 2020 Olympic silver Jordan Chiles, who moved to the Houston area several years ago to train alongside Biles at the World Champions Center.

Watson just kind of laughs when asked what would happen if one of the leading schools in Texas took the leap and did what schools like Clemson are doing by adding a curriculum to a sport in the midst of a boom. serious.

“It would be a game changer for sure,” she said.

Although expensive. There are 12 full scholarships available in Division I women’s gymnastics programs, with a decision to potentially expand the number to 14. Add to that training, travel, coaching salaries and everything else, and this doesn’t come cheap to start a competitive team. Add in the ripple effects of Title IX — which mandates that “the interests and athletic abilities of male and female students be given equal and effective consideration” — and the math can be tricky.

Still, there is hope in some places that women’s gymnastics can be “revenue neutral”. It’s a model that LSU coach Jay Clark hopes his program can achieve by the end of the decade, although the Tigers may be the exception. LSU is generally among the national leaders in average attendance and has averaged 11,691 fans in its five home games this season, the best in the nation.

Although the addition of scholarships can be a barrier for potential programs, Clark sees it as a supply and demand issue.

“We haven’t had a raise since 1995 and the talent pool has quadrupled,” he said.

He’s not kidding. Over the past decade, the number of active Level 10 gymnasts — which includes the vast majority of college athletes — has nearly doubled, from 1,600 to nearly 3,100.

A talent that appears daily at the World Champions Centre, the huge Nellie Biles gym opened its doors in 2015 at the start of her daughter’s extraordinary career. The gym has produced more than a dozen Division I athletes over the past seven years.

“If this opportunity opens up in the state of Texas, I think it will be a gold mine,” said Nellie Biles. “There are so many girls in Texas who are recruited from everywhere else. I’m sure UCLA and Alabama are glad we don’t have any.

Longtime Oklahoma coach KJ Kindler has four Texans on his roster. His recruiting pitch is a combination of quality – the Sooners are in the finals for the ninth consecutive time – and proximity to his home. Kindler is “shocked” that she faces no competition from rival Oklahoma schools in nearly every sport.

“If a DI program in Texas opened up, they would compete for national championships very quickly,” she said.

It is not for lack of having tried the sportsmen. The Collegiate Gymnastics Growth Initiative was started by the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association to “promote awareness of the continuation and addition of new women’s collegiate gymnastics programs across the country.”

The CGGI — which was created in the mid-1990s to “save our (butts)” according to Long Island University head coach Randy Lane — has made several presentations at schools across Texas.

“We really tried not to push from a ‘You have to add’ perspective, because when you do that, they won’t,” Lane said. “You have to show them the benefits the program brings. We show that we are one of the best sports in terms of grade point average, one of the best sports in terms of (academic progression rate).

Texas Woman’s University, which won its 12th Collegiate National Championships title last week, could make the jump to Division I, though head coach Lisa Bowerman balked when asked about it.

“It would be amazing to see it happen, but that’s all I can say at the moment,” she said.

The NCAA will continue to have a presence in Texas. The women’s championships are expected to stay in Fort Worth until at least 2026. The centralized location is great, but there’s also more than a little subliminal advertising going on.

“It’s (NCAA) wanting to show (Texas), ‘you gotta have a program,'” said ESPN analyst and two-time Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner.

For now, athletes like Smith and Watson can take comfort in the fact that their families don’t have to cross a state line to watch them compete in their biggest meet of the season while club owners in Texas wait for recruiting calls to start coming from a familiar area code.

“We have great schools in Texas,” Biles said. “They have to understand that.”

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