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

Linda Mulvihill
Courtesy Linda Mulvihill
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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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