Differences between Olympics, NCAA gymnastics explained ahead of national championships

Jordan Chiles of the UCLA Bruins competes on beam against the Arizona Wildcats.
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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — For decades, college gymnastics lived in the shadow of elite competition.

The Olympics were the Olympics. And what happened outside of that rarified air was … not that.

“When I started in collegiate gymnastics I think that at the elite level, they kind of looked down on college gymnastics, as if we were the place that good gymnasts went to die,” said Bev Plocki, longtime head coach at defending national champion Michigan.

The narrative has changed over the last 15-plus years, as the number of elite athletes who made their way to the college level has grown from a trickle to a steady stream.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Olympians Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey, Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles carry extra burden into NCAA championships

Four 2020 Olympians — all-around champion Sunisa Lee (Auburn), gold medalist Jade Carey (Oregon State) and silver medalists Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and Grace McCallum (Utah) — will be on the floor Thursday at the 2022 NCAA national championships.

Their arrival has provided jet fuel to a movement that’s been picking up momentum in recent years in terms of visibility and cache. The prevalence of social media, increased TV coverage and relaxed rules that allow NCAA athletes to cash in on their name, image and likeness has given college gymnastics some serious buzz.

From a competitive standpoint, even with the influx of Olympians and former U.S. national team members, parity has never been greater, due in large part to college gymnastics’ emphasis on precision over difficulty. Lee and her Olympic teammates are hardly shoo-ins to dominate the podium in the individual all-around competition Thursday and in the team finals Saturday.

Michigan, in fact, used a core of athletes who never competed at the elite level to claim its first title last spring, beating programs whose rosters are dotted with athletes who competed for the U.S. internationally.

How did that happen? A quick primer on the differences between NCAA and elite gymnastics.

THE BASICS

Competitive gymnastics is divided into levels, from 1-10. Gymnasts who reach Level 10 typically have the option to test into “elite” at some point, an avenue that usually first becomes available when they are around 12 years old.

While only a few move on to elite, the vast majority who reach Level 10 have the opportunity to compete collegiately.

Elite gymnastics is considerably more difficult, with routines that are longer and packed with more elements. College routines are shorter and “easier” by definition, though some of that is due to the nature of the competition season and the fact the athletes are full-time students.

At the elite level, gymnasts practices 30+ hours a week. Many are home schooled and their training is geared to have them peak a handful of times a year, with those meets spread out so their bodies can recover.

College competition season runs from January-April. For Auburn and the other seven teams vying for the team title as well as the athletes who qualified for nationals as individuals, this week’s finals will be at least their 13th meet in a span of just over three months.

Throw in NCAA rules that limit training to 20 hours a week and trying to cram routines with a ton of elite-level connections doesn’t make much sense.

HOW DOES SCORING WORK?

While the 10-point scoring system disappeared from elite gymnastics in 2006, it is thriving collegiately.

In elite gymnastics, the open-ended scoring system allows mistakes in form that can be made up by increasing the difficulty of a routine. The 10.0 system in college puts a premium on precision.

“In elite, like for the big tricks, you’re given a bonus and for just doing big tricks, not necessarily doing them perfectly,” said Lisa Bowerman, head coach at Texas Women’s University, a Division II program that is serving as host for nationals.

While the routines may be “easier” by definition, the slightest wobble can be the difference between winning a national championship or finishing off the podium.

“A lot of what makes a team successful in college gymnastics is culture and the ability to handle the pressure of competition,” said Jordyn Wieber, the Arkansas coach, 2011 world all-around champion and a member of the gold medal-winning 2012 U.S. women’s Olympic team. “It’s not based on how many hard skills you can do. And because of that you don’t need a full team of elites to win a national championship.”

MORE 2022 NCAA GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS: Schedule, how NCAA gymnastics works

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.