© UCLA Athletics

By Nick McCarvel

When Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian donned their blue and gold in early January for UCLA in a dual meet against Arkansas, they simultaneously became the first Olympic champions to compete in college gymnastics.

The moment also marked a growing trend in collegiate gymnastics of elite gymnasts competing at the college level, with Olympic champions Kocian and Ross joined by world championship-winners Maggie Nichols, MyKayla Skinner and Sabrina Vega. All five are freshmen this season.

“To be the first two Olympic gold medalists to compete in college, I’m definitely glad we’re sharing that together,” Ross said of herself and Kocian during a phone interview with USA Gymnastics. “It’s crazy that we both ended up at UCLA together. It’s different being on a college team… Madison and I are able to help each other because we can relate so easily.”

There are few that can relate to what Ross and Kocian have been through, winning Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, respectively, and at UCLA, they have Ross’ London teammate, Jordyn Wieber, as a volunteer coach on floor to help them further along the way.

But the Olympic and world prowess across the college ranks is giving the discipline an added boost to what has already been a fervent and excitable following, with UCLA drawing a record crowd to its home opener featuring Ross and Kocian, and Utah drawing over 15,000 fans to a dual against Cal earlier this month.

“Having the big crowds and support from everyone, that makes it so fun,” said Skinner, who was on the U.S. team that won gold in Nanning in 2014 at Worlds. “I don’t think we’d be where we are without them. The crowd just gets you so pumped and ready to go.”

As of early February, Skinner’s Utah was the No. 4 team in the nation, followed by UCLA at No. 5. It’s Oklahoma, where the 2015 world team champion Nichols landed, that holds that coveted No. 1 ranking. Madison Desch, who was the alternate to the 2014 World team with Kocian, Ross and Skinner, is a member of the No. 6-ranked Alabama team.

“The college atmosphere is so amazing. I’m so glad I’m able to experience this kind of atmosphere,” said Nichols in a phone interview. “The whole team is like family. I have so many girls I can fall back on if I’m having a hard time. At every competition, we’re behind each other and only want the best for each other. It’s a great feeling.”

The transition from elite – and for a few of the athletes, a full-time gym schedule – to college has not been easy. After Rio, Kocian juggled duties on the Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, as did Skinner, who said she had to pack a semester of school in almost half the time. Ross details 16-hour days that include practice, strength and conditioning, school, tutoring and – of course – naps.

There is also the adjusting from the level and type of gymnastics done in college from that of the elite world. For Vega, a gold medalist in the team event at Worlds in 2011, it’s all about the small details and being as perfect as possible on every routine.

“In elite, it’s all about who can bring the biggest skills and hit them under pressure,” said Vega, who competes for No. 9-ranked Georgia. “You think about the little things in elite, but these are the tiny quarter point aspects that are going to get you closer to a 10 and closer to winning the team event. Which is what we’re all after.”

Nichols concurs.

“Everything has to be perfect,” she said. “You have to hit every angle. If you want to get the highest score possible, you have to hit everything. Simple as that.”

The college season is also fast and furious, kicking off in January and culminating in mid-April. That means a meet every weekend, and – sometimes – as many as three meets in a single week. It’s much different than the elite schedule, where gymnasts are working towards peaking for only four or five competitions each year.

Early in February, Nichols and Skinner were ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the individual rankings in the country, showing they’ve adjusted quite well – and quickly.

“Everything is different,” Skinner said about her life now versus her push to make the Rio Olympics team last year, when she deferred starting college. “It’s been a rush, but when you’re part of a team, they all push you to do your best.”

All five of the freshmen said that they have felt the eyes of everyone in the gym on them when they compete, and that the pressure of wanting to hit for their team is much different than what they faced in the elite atmosphere. 

“The last time the whole gymnastics world saw me was at the Olympics Games… That was the highest level of my career,” explained Kocian. “The expectations for me are higher than for my teammates, I think. I had to block all of that out. Any pressure that would get to me, was just pressure that I was putting on myself.”

Kocian has found fun in working closely with Wieber on improving her floor routine as she works towards competing in the all-around, while Ross went viral a few weeks ago when she notched the first perfect 10 of her career on the uneven bars. She was swarmed by her UCLA teammates after sticking her landing.

“Everyone knew right away,” Ross laughed about the score. “Having my team and my coaches’ believe (in me) and have my back, that made me so emotional. I was really happy to get that first 10 of the season for them.”

“Every time I’m about to compete, I just think, ‘This is for the team,’” she added. “You’re not thinking about yourself. You put the team ahead of everything else, and I feel like for me that gives me a different competitive edge. It’s a different pressure situation than elite.”

It has also renewed the passion for the sport for all five women in different ways. While Vega said that the fewer hours in the gym compared to elite has her wanting to do backflips at midnight, the team atmosphere, community support and college spirit that exists around the sport has her as motivated as ever.

“I find myself loving the competition again,” she said. “I can’t lie and say I don’t get nervous – I definitely do – but it’s a different kind of nervous. Your team is behind you 100 percent.”

And while women’s college gymnastics will always differ from men’s because of the Olympic pipeline and the different systems that exist at the elite level, Vega sees this season as a new realization for collegiate women.

“It gives college gymnastics another step up,” she said in regards to having herself and the other big names compete. “For me, it’s another reward for all of those years of hard work. I get to have fun in gymnastics again, be a part of an amazing team. No matter what background you have… you can come into college and do what you love and have fun.”

“Having so many elite gymnasts on the college scene, it shows how amazing college gymnastics is,” added Nichols. “We have these different kinds of opportunities and it’s exciting. It gives you another chance to excel. (The five of us) are all so happy for each other because we’re having such a great time.”