In April I had the opportunity to photograph the NCAA gymnastics championships for a second year. I felt like I was rolling into the weekend on fumes after many weeks of working all day and doing school work all evening, and when I arrived in Fort Worth, Texas my motivation and energy were seriously lacking. The weekend of gymnastics spectating and photographing has become a little tradition with my mom, a college teammate, and her mom as a low-key girls weekend. Thankfully, my mom is incredibly supportive (she searches from the stands for ME amid gymnastics celebrities when I head onto the arena floor with my camera around my neck), and she doesn’t mind me spending many hours of the weekend at the arena or editing late into the night. She’s encouraging and understanding, and I hope we get to continue this little tradition.
On the first day of the NCAA gymnastics championships, as I was mustering my own energy for the long days ahead, I stepped into the arena and immediately felt the wonder and nervousness of the year before. I paused and watched the superhuman athletes flipping high in the air. I was frozen in fangirl awe. I remember seeing UCLA’s Pulla Carlotta walk past me, and mentally dropping my jaw when I saw in-person her muscular frame. I thought “what am I doing here??” and felt a little sheepish that I too can truthfully claim I was a college gymnast. I should remember the hours of my own practices, years of gymnastics before that, and the balancing act of academics with athletics. But let’s be real, I was struggling to make line-up on a DIII team, and many of the girls that were in the arena at this meet were elite-level gymnasts. Hence my fangirling awe.
I was largely following UCLA’s team in this meet, but was keeping my eyes and lens on some other gymnasts I am also fans of, including the Oklahoma team that is a dominant force. Once I found my stride on the arena floor, emotions for the competitors would roll in like waves crashing on a shore. I was pulling for the University of Denver team that was swimming with the big fish, and they were showing they had every right to be there too. An underdog story is one I can always get behind.
The UCLA storyline through the year was focused on the last year with their coach, the legendary ‘Miss Val’, who retired at the end of the season. Miss Val focused on each gymnast as a person rather than an athlete that is required to produce for the team. I kept imagining her emotions as she experienced everything for one last time, and I also wondered about the girls she’s impacted and how tough it must be for the remaining team members who will continue the UCLA gymnastics legacy after her departure.
As always, a meet like this also makes me think of the seniors who finished their gymnastics careers here. It’s a bittersweet day because this was the last time the seniors would compete in the sport they’ve dedicated most of their life to. My palms would sweat as a senior prepared to compete her last routine, hoping for her sake she would perform flawlessly. At her dismount, her teammates would wrap her in hugs or clap her high fives as the reality of completion hit her.
Finally, no matter who wins the meet, I can’t help but tear up a bit as I imagine the athletes’ months of pure dedication, conditioning, tears, and wanting something so badly it hurts, and then that dream finally coming to fruition. This year, the Oklahoma team led the competition the entire way, after doing much the same all year. But the team’s reaction to sealing their win made those spectating know how much it meant to them. They finished on vault, and with each turn, the gymnasts ran back to their teammates with raised arms and triumphant smiles. It felt like a victorious crescendo, and when the scores were totaled, their faces were both ecstatic and tear stained, partly because they had spent all year hungry for this title after being narrowly edged out by UCLA last year. After the championship trophy was handed over, as is done each year, the confetti poured down from the ceiling, and the girls looked up with joy-filled faces. Then, they circled up with their coaches and sand and danced together, and I could see them belting out the words to Carrie Underwood’s ‘Champion’ from a place deep within. I found myself tearing up again!
I was able to watch the press conference with the championship team after the meet and learned about their year of struggle that wasn’t necessarily evident on the outside. In addition to battling injuries and other conflicts they alluded to, their athletic trainer’s beloved husband passed away in the middle of the season, and they devoted the rest of the season to him. To top it off, their tradition this year of picking a song for each meet showed them in goose-bump-inducing ways that there was something special about this season. One meet the coaches picked a song to represent the meet, not knowing until afterwards that it was the trainer’s husband’s favorite song. For the day of the team championship, the coaches selected Carrie Underwood’s song as motivation. That song, with no prompting from the coaches to the meet organizers, played over the arena’s loudspeaker after the confetti fell. Hearing those stories and seeing the emotions of the team, I was fortunate to have a glimpse of their sweet and meaningful victory. It stood as a reminder that we don’t often see the struggles and hurdles that others face and overcome despite a seemingly perfect exterior.
Overall, despite lacking energy and motivation coming into the weekend, I was filled up by the energy and excitement in the arena. I was grateful for the opportunity to view from up close these athletes and teams who are examples of dedication, passion, and drive. And excuse me for all the tears I discreetly wiped away from behind the lens.