NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships: Olympians follow the path of a pioneer

Linda Mulvihill
Courtesy Linda Mulvihill

The focus of this week’s NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships is largely on Tokyo Olympians Suni Lee, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum. It’s the first time that four U.S. women went directly from the Olympics to college gymnastics.

Lee, Carey and Chiles have said they plan to return to elite, Olympic-level gymnastics before the 2024 Paris Games. McCallum is undecided.

If any of the four makes back-to-back Olympic teams, she will be the first U.S. woman to compete collegiately in between Olympic appearances in more than 50 years. Most Olympians retire from competition after the Games, turn professional to give up NCAA eligibility or compete collegiately and never return to elite-level gymnastics.

Linda Mulvihill is the outlier.

In a 10-year span in the 1960s and ’70s, Mulvihill, then Linda Metheny, made her competitive gymnastics debut, made three Olympic teams and competed collegiately while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois.

“That’s a huge amount of work no matter what decade it is,” said 1980 and 1984 Olympian Tracee Talavera, who as a kid spent six years living in the Mulvihills’ home, with many other young gymnasts, while training at the Mulvihills’ National Academy of Artistic Gymnastics in Eugene, Oregon.

Mulvihill grew up in Tuscola, Illinois, a town of 3,000 people that’s a half-hour drive south of the University of Illinois.

She taught herself one-handed cartwheels in the backyard and begged her mom for dance or acrobatic lessons. Grandma finally relented, signing her up for $1/week classes in a nearby woman’s basement.

After one summer, Mulvihill had a back handspring down and took her talents to Champaign, where Illini men’s gymnastics coach Charlie Pond ran a little rec program.

Mulvihill carpooled for years for tumbling lessons, then ballet and eventually work on the uneven bars and balance beam.

Her first bona fide competition was in 1962. Two years later, she made the Tokyo Olympic team. She competed against Larisa Latynina, the Soviet legend who won 18 Olympic medals, a record until Michael Phelps broke it in 2012.

“My idol,” Mulvihill said by phone while thumbing through a scrapbook to jog her memory. “I remember copying parts of her floor routine, because I just thought they were really cool.”

Mulvihill was just starting on a unique gymnastics career. She returned from the Games at age 17 and later enrolled at the University of Illinois, where she trained alongside the men’s team and at the local YMCA.

She fit two gym sessions in per day while balancing class slates that sometimes included four-hour labs.

Male gymnasts had NCAA competition at the time. Mulvihill at first didn’t think there was anything for women on the college level. One day she learned about a women’s college meet. Her coach (and eventual husband) asked if she wanted to go. Sure, she said.

The Illinois men’s team had scholarships, paid-for travel and uniforms. She had none of those things, yet competed anyway.

“I probably did think about [gender inequities], but you can’t dwell on that because it is what it is. You do the best with what you’ve got,” she said. “It was my hope that there would eventually be a women’s gymnastics team with the same opportunities that the U of I men’s team was given.”

Mulvihill won seven titles at the women’s college championships from 1967-69 among the all-around, balance beam and floor exercise.

In 1969, The New York Times recapped nationals in a three-paragraph blurb on page 35, adjacent to a story about Bruno Sammartino beating Killer Kowalski in a professional wrestling event at Madison Square Garden.

Back then, the springboards were all board and no spring. They sometimes competed on a basketball court, marking off areas with tape. Title IX wasn’t passed until 1972, and the NCAA didn’t add women’s gymnastics until 1982.

“It was hard, but we were pioneers, I guess, determined,” Mulvihill said of her era of college gymnasts. “We really wanted to see the sport develop and succeed.”

In the middle of her college dominance, Mulvihill made her second Olympic team in 1968. She became the first U.S. woman to qualify for an Olympic event final, placing fourth on beam and missing a medal by .025.

She remembered handling it well, yet also crying a little bit later in a bathroom stall at the Mexico City venue. There, she learned about the politics of the sport. A judge was in the bathroom, too, and was confused at the tears. The judge told Mulvihill that she was supposed to receive scores that would have put her in a tie for the bronze.

She went back to Champaign and kept training while pursuing her master’s. In 1971, Mulvihill became at age 24 the oldest USA Gymnastics national women’s all-around champion, an age record she held until Simone Biles broke it last year by a matter of days.

Mulvihill made her last Olympic team in 1972 and retired from competition at age 25, immediately moving into coaching. Her students at the Eugene academy included Talavera and Julianna McNamara, who also made the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams. She still runs the academy, which will celebrate 50 years next February.

She was also the U.S. women’s head coach at the 1979 World Championships, then judged at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000 and at NCAA Championships in the early 2000s. She saw firsthand how far women’s college gymnastics had come from not only her years, but also the nascent NCAA era of 30 and 40 years ago.

“We used to joke and say [NCAA} is where elite gymnasts went out to pasture,” said ESPN college gymnastics analyst Kathy Johnson Clarke, who did two years of college gymnastics at Centenary before competing on Mulvihill’s team at 1979 Worlds, followed by making two Olympic teams.

Recently, college gymnasts have returned to elite competition. MyKayla Skinner did so and made the Tokyo Olympic team.

But the name, image and likeness era accelerated the movement. The U.S.’ best gymnasts are now competing in college, which means some of the world’s best gymnasts are now competing in college.

“It’s been a lot of years,” Mulvihill said when asked to reflect on the progression of college gymnastics. “It’s wonderful now that the opportunities are there for the all the girls and women gymnasts, and even more so now when Olympians are allowed to compete.”

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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach

GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas

If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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