The Division III Dream

Easter weekend, I knew what I was most excited about, and it wasn’t Peeps.

The holiday weekend meant I had adequate time to watch the multi-event feeds, follow the live blog hits, and Tweet about the drama of the NCAA Championships as it unfolded. Thanks to ESPN and the power of passionate college gymnastics fans, it was a vastly different experience from back in the middle of March, when I attempted to stream the Division III Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championships. I could certainly look forward to some solid coverage in this modern age, right?

Cinematic, the livestream was not; the “bars and floor” fixed camera showed bars competing in the background while tumbling passes landed out of frame. Live scores? Nonexistent. Instead, the pitch of the cheers clued me into how the meet was progressing: explosive cheers meant success. Cheers sans jumping up and down meant someone had fallen. I refreshed host SUNY Brockport’s website numerous times in hopes of learning the results, but like the Stone Age, I had to wait a few hours before they were posted.

However, don’t let the lack of athletic scholarships and fanfare fool you: Division III teams aren’t holding hands and skipping around in grassy knolls. Competition between the top teams is fierce, and they certainly aren’t immune from the troubles that plague any team—contagious beam falls, multiple injuries, and the occasional head-scratching score. Back in my day, we had our share of fiery speeches from our coach and silent bus rides back from a competition. We ran into trouble toward the end of the season when injuries decimated the lineup. There’s also a good amount of solid gymnastics. You’re familiar with Maggie Nichols, of course. But you may not know that Carolyn Nichols from Ithaca vaults the awesome and unusual front handspring entry onto the board. Or that Brockport’s floor anchor at ECACs, Brittany Vasile, scored a 9.9.

It’s why when I started writing my young adult novel, Lessons in Falling, about a gymnast, I knew college gymnastics would be part of her journey—in particular, Division III. As the main character, Savannah, crawls back from a knee injury, she needs to reconcile her Division I dreams with the reality that perhaps there’s a better option out there for her.

Division III is the place where you’re doing it for the team (is it even legal in college sports to say otherwise?) but you’re also doing it for you. You’re still going because you love this sport and the places it’s taken you. Perhaps it was flying to California to compete against Division I Cal State Fullerton (RIP) and (more importantly) go to a taping of The Price is Right afterwards. Or maybe it was taking a bus ride to Ursinus, a school with a very solid team whose name you’re still not sure you’re pronouncing correctly.

So here’s to the girls smuggling brownies at the back of the bus after a bad meet. (You know who you are.) The girls recognized on campus because they’re the ones constantly decked out in their team’s gymnastics sweatshirts and pants. The ones helping to assemble the equipment the night before the meet in the main gym in hopes of drawing a crowd.

There may not be a fireworks-and-spotlights introduction. The majority of the spectators in the bleachers may be parents, small children, and students there for the extra credit. However, one important similarity transcends divisions and conferences: the stuck landing-inspired mass hysteria remains the same.

Diana Gallagher is a proud Division III gymnastics alum. Her first YA novel, Lessons in Falling, is out now. You can find her on Twitter: @DianaMarieGal.

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