Our Favorite NCAA-to-Elite Glow-Ups

This past week, University of Utah standout and 2016 Olympic alternate MyKayla Skinner announced that she’ll be returning to elite competition this year with the hopes of earning a spot on the Olympic team in 2020.

Skinner will join fellow NCAA star Trinity Thomas of the University of Florida at a national team camp next month, with the two opting to take the rare and difficult path to continue training at the elite level during or after NCAA careers. Internationally, it’s becoming more and more common to see gymnasts thrive at older ages, but after downgrading routines to meet NCAA requirements – on top of 20 years of training in the gym – many collegiate gymnasts feel physically unable to bring back elite-level difficulty and most are more than happy to hang up their grips after graduating.

But every so often, we do see a number of older gymnasts come back during or after thriving NCAA careers, and occasionally we even get a rare talent who tries elite for the first time after leaving college. Here’s a list of some of our favorite stories over the years.

Kelly Garrison

The OG of double-teaming NCAA and elite, Kelly Garrison missed out on the Olympic team in 1984 and then struggled a bit in the following years, making the worlds team in 1985 but then finishing 39th all-around at nationals the following year.

She began looking into a collegiate career, and won a scholarship at the University of Oklahoma in her home state, where she became one of the most-decorated NCAA athletes of all time, dominating the college gymnastics scene by sweeping the Big 8 Championships two years in a row, winning four national titles – including back-to-back all-around crowns – and winning the prestigious Honda Award twice.

Her confidence increased with her NCAA experience, and Kelly fought her way back to the top of the elite world, finishing fifth all-around at nationals in 1987 to make the Pan Ams and worlds teams, and then as a college sophomore in 1988, Kelly made the U.S. Olympic team where she was named team captain after finishing second all-around in the country at age 21.

Though Kelly’s experience at the Olympic Games came with controversy as the U.S. team ended up fourth due to a technicality when alternate Rhonda Faehn remained on the podium during Kelly’s compulsory routine, Kelly had a great competition at the Olympic Games, and the experience in Seoul led to many professional opportunities, which caused her to cut her NCAA career short.

25 years after beginning her career at OU, Kelly returned to wrap up her degree in Communications at the age of 45, and she currently provides play-by-play commentary for the Sooners.

Mohini Bhardwaj

Originally an Olympic hopeful in the 1996 quad, Mohini moved to Texas on her own at age 16, but partying took priority over training, and she wound up tenth at trials that summer. Mohini eventually went to UCLA, where her wild-child ways forced head coach Valorie Kondos-Field to give her an ultimatum if she wanted to stay on the team.

Thankfully, Mohini shaped up and became a superstar for the Bruins, winning the AAI American Award and the Honda Award in her senior year. With a renewed love for the sport, Mohini returned to elite in 2001 and made the vault final at worlds that same year. A series of injuries and financial struggles caused her to take time away from the sport and again consider retirement, but she returned to training in 2003 and when Pamela Anderson heard that she was in debt and unable to pay her way to the 2004 Olympic Trials, Anderson donated $20,000 to Mohini’s Olympic dreams.

This time around, Mohini finished sixth all-around in the country, and at the Olympic selection camp held at the ranch, Martha Karolyi not only named her to the Olympic team, but also made her the captain. In Athens, Mohini placed sixth in the floor final and she was crucial in the team competition, stepping in last-minute for an injured Courtney Kupets on beam to help the team reach silver, a pressure-filled situation that Mohini said she could easily handle because of her NCAA experience.

Mohini ended up retiring from gymnasts shortly after the 2004 Olympic Games, at the age of 26. In addition to her success as a member of several U.S. teams, Mohini is also remembered for being the first gymnast to compete a full-twisting Pak salto, a skill that continues to become more and more popular among the top bars competitors in the world. Today, Mohini owns and coaches at OOA Gymnastics in Oregon, and she began competing as a weightlifter in 2018.

Jessica Lopez

A three-time Olympian for Venezuela, Jessica Lopez was an NCAA competitor before she ever hit the Olympic stage, making her collegiate debut at the University of Denver in 2006.

One of Denver’s most accomplished gymnasts in the program’s history, Jessica won 83 individual titles throughout her career and made appearances at three NCAA Championships between 2006 and 2009, and in the summer before her final season, she competed at her first Olympic Games in Beijing.

After graduating from college, Jessica continued to grow on the international scene, winning the bronze at the American Cup in 2010, improving her all-around ranking year after year at the multiple world championships she competed at, and then reaching the uneven bars final at the 2016 Olympic Games, finishing sixth there in addition to finishing a personal best seventh all-around in a major international meet. She also won a number of Pan Ams medals between 2010 and 2015, and she’s a nine-time Central American & Caribbean Games and South American Games champion.

Today, Jessica is a volunteer assistant coach at her alma mater, and this year she helped the Pioneers reach team finals at NCAA Championships for the first time in program history.

Alicia Sacramone

When Alicia was 16, her talent on vault made her a dark horse for the 2004 Olympic team, and though she had a few breakthrough moments that year, a back injury and a poor performance at nationals meant she wouldn’t be attending the Olympic Trials.

The post-Olympic season was a great one for Alicia, however, leading to world championships berths in 2005, where she won the gold on floor and the bronze on vault, and again in 2006, where she won the silver on vault in addition to helping the U.S. win the silver medal in the team competition.

Alicia enrolled at Brown University in the fall of 2006, which was a surprise to most, as Brown isn’t a top gymnastics program and the Ivy League doesn’t offer scholarships, but it was the only NCAA program close enough to Brestyan’s, which would allow her to continue her elite training while also competing NCAA. At Brown, Alicia broke record after record, and she became the second gymnast in Brown’s history to reach NCAA Championships as an individual, but after two years at the collegiate level, Alicia initially opted to defer the 2007-2008 season before then deciding to retire in order to focus solely on elite in the lead-up to the Olympic Games.

After winning two individual medals in addition to contributing to team gold at worlds in 2007, Alicia became a lock for the 2008 Olympic team, where she competed three events, but unfortunately fell on beam and floor in the team final and despite showing the strongest execution on vault in the apparatus final, her relative lack of difficulty held her back to fourth place.

Though Alicia initially announced her retirement from elite gymnastics in 2009, six months later, she decided to return to training. Her comeback in 2010 was an explosive one, including a worlds berth that fall, where she won the gold medal on vault and helped the team to silver. While Alicia was expected to bring even more success in 2011, an Achilles tear in Tokyo ended her trip, and though she quickly got back into shape in time to put up a fight for a second Olympic team spot, she ultimately wasn’t named to the team.

Alicia is now married with two daughters, and she both coaches and commentates, mostly for ESPN’s SEC coverage during the NCAA season.

Vanessa Zamarripa

As a child, Vanessa toyed with the idea of competing at the elite level, but while she went to some pre-elite competitions around ages 13 and 14, she ultimately opted to focus on J.O., and she won a total of nine Level 10 individual national titles during her five-year career.

Vanessa went right from J.O. to NCAA, competing as a member of the the UCLA Bruins beginning in 2009. In addition to helping UCLA to the team title in 2010, Vanessa was an individual standout on vault, scoring nine career perfect 10s on the event throughout her career, and winning the national title in 2010.

Though she didn’t compete a ton of vault difficulty in college, Vanessa was secretly training skills on this event that would make her competitive as an elite, including the rarely-competed Cheng. In need of strong vaulters, the U.S. national program expressed interest in seeing Vanessa at the elite level, and so she attended the U.S. Classic in 2010, finishing seventh all-around to qualify to nationals, where she won the silver medal on vault behind Alicia Sacramone.

While Vanessa’s Cheng was impressive on its own, and was at the time the most difficult vault competed among the seniors on the U.S. team, Vanessa’s second vault was only a Yurchenko full and her difficulty on her other three events wasn’t strong enough to allow her to contribute elsewhere. She made the U.S. national team, but Martha Karolyi told her she should take some time to build difficulty on her other events if she wanted to be named to major international squads in the future.

Unfortunately, Vanessa ruptured her Achilles in December of that year, causing her not only to miss the 2011 NCAA season, but also to give up on her dream of returning to elite-level difficulty in the future. Today she works as a performer, continuing to use her gymnastics training as she does stunts for film, TV, and live shows.

Mackenzie Caquatto

After missing out on reaching the Olympic Trials in 2008, Mackenzie’s first year at the senior level, Mackenzie returned a year later as one of the top gymnasts in the country, especially as so many of the previous quad’s stars went on hiatus.

In 2009, Mackenzie was the first alternate for the individual world championships squad, and though she was set to begin attending the University of Florida in the fall of 2010, her strong performances that summer made her a top contender for the worlds team, so she deferred for a semester to compete with the team in Rotterdam, helping the United States to the silver medal with big scores on vault and bars.

Mackenzie joined Florida for the 2011 season, but that summer she returned to elite, again hoping to contribute on another worlds team. With a fourth-place all-around finish and the silver medal on bars at nationals, Mackenzie looked likely for Tokyo, but unfortunately she injured both ankles on her double pike beam dismount at the selection camp.

It took some time for Mackenzie to return to full health even for NCAA competition, and although she wanted to reach the elite level once again with the hope of making it to the Olympic Trials in 2012, her injuries were a bit too limiting. Still, she enjoyed immense success at Florida, helping the team to two national titles on top of numerous individual accolades, and she now works as a teacher.

Anna Li

Anna has elite gymnastics in her blood. Her parents were both members of China’s Olympic team in 1984, and though they coached her to the senior elite level in 2004 and 2005, an injury the following year held her back in training and she opted to move on to NCAA gymnastics.

As a competitor for the UCLA Bruins from 2007 to 2010, Anna quickly became known for her difficult bars set, performing a routine with multiple same-bar releases in addition to a full-twisting double layout in 2009. Anna was the Pac 10 bars champion that year, and as a senior in 2010, she scored multiple perfect 10s on the event, earning the Pac 10 bars title, and then helping her team to the national title that April.

After finishing up her eligibility at UCLA but with some credits left to go before her degree was completed, Anna continued to train alongside teammate Vanessa Zamarripa, who was also training elite at the time. She returned to Legacy Elite to train with her parents in 2011, and she qualified elite that summer, winning bronze on uneven bars at nationals to make the national team and then the worlds team, where she was technically the alternate, but her NCAA experience was crucial in helping bring the team together on the floor.

In the Olympic year, Anna was a top contender for an uneven bars spot on the team going to London, but ultimately she was chosen as an alternate. Today, Anna is a coach and a Brevet judge, and last year, she gave birth to a baby girl, Cali.

Casey Jo Magee

A member of the Arkansas Razorbacks from 2007 until 2010, Casey Jo – née Magee, now MacPherson – said she still felt great physically after finishing her illustrious NCAA career, and she still loved the sport so much, so “why not just try elite?”

Casey Jo was a stellar J.O. and NCAA athlete, winning 71 individual titles throughout her career and helping Arkansas to a fifth-place team finish in 2009. With no prior elite experience, making the transition wasn’t easy, but she quickly worked her way up the ranks, qualifying elite in 2011 and then to nationals in that same year, competing all events but bars.

Though Casey Jo didn’t end up reaching Olympic contention, she became known for her unique but super difficult skills and combos – like a Korbut into a back spin, a switch leap to tour jeté half, and an Okino on beam – and was a fan favorite during her experiment with elite.

Following her career as a competitor, Casey Jo began coaching, assisting for a couple of years at Western Michigan before taking on a similar role at Missouri, where she’s been for six seasons.

Jenny Hansen

More than twenty years after finishing her NCAA career at the University of Kentucky, Jenny Hansen is still remembered not only as one of the best gymnasts in the school’s history, but as one of the best gymnasts in NCAA history, period.

While attending Kentucky between 1992 and 1996, Jenny won a total of eight national titles, including back-to-back-to-back national all-around titles, and she remains the only gymnast to ever win three straight all-around titles in NCAA Championships history.

Like most gymnasts, Jenny retired from competition after college, diving into a world of stunt performing, including for Sea World and Disneyland, but it was while she was working as a stunt double for ABC Family’s Make It Or Break It where she was spotted by Bela Karolyi, who asked her, “why aren’t you on the national team?”

At age 38, Jenny didn’t really take him seriously, but at the urging of friends, she began training with the slim hope of maybe making it to the Olympics. She attended some elite qualifiers, including one at the ranch in 2012, but while she wasn’t able to make the dream happen, she had a great experience just giving it a try.

Now, Jenny continues to use her athletic talents as a performer, breaking away from strictly doing stunts to getting gigs like a personal trainer on The Biggest Loser and as a tester on American Ninja Warrior, building and operating the course used on the show.

Houry Gebeshian

The Massachusetts-born Houry had always been a J.O. standout growing up, with her early career results helping her earn a full scholarship at the University of Iowa.

Houry began her NCAA career in 2008, and with the Hawkeye program, she grew into a confident and consistent all-arounder, becoming the Big 10 beam champion in 2010, and then earning an individual qualification to NCAA Championships as a senior in 2011.

During her collegiate career, Houry had discussed the possibility of competing as an elite gymnast for Armenia, as she was Armenian by birth and had dual citizenship which gave her the opportunity to represent the country at the Olympic Games. With some help from a friend who had ties to the Armenian Olympic federation, Houry self-funded her trip to worlds in 2011, and though she got close to qualifying a spot to the 2012 Olympic Games, she was ultimately just a few tenths shy, ending up the third reserve.

Four years later, Houry returned to elite competition in 2015, getting her feet wet at Euros, where she made the all-around final before then moving on to worlds, finishing 68th to qualify a spot to the test event, where she easily qualified to the Games.

At the Olympics, Houry increased her difficulty on several events, getting a career-high all-around score in addition to getting a mount named for her on the uneven bars. She was also a media favorite at the Games after she was spotted kissing each apparatus upon finishing, which she said was a sign of respect to the sport that had given her so much.

Today, Houry works as a Physician’s Assistant at the Cleveland Clinic, and she also mentors several young gymnasts competing for Armenia at the international level. She recently traveled to Armenia to volunteer through a Birthright program, spending her time coaching young athletes and speaking with the Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs to discuss increasing women’s involvement in sports.

Brittany Rogers

After making her major international debut at world championships in 2009, Brittany seemed on the fast-track to stardom as one of Canada’s top gymnasts, and even though she had to fight through injuries throughout the early part of her senior career, she made her Olympic dreams come true in 2012, earning a spot in the vault final and helping her team to an historic fifth place in the team competition.

Brittany began competing for the University of Georgia in the 2013 season, just months after her Olympic success, and though she was a standout for the program, she still felt she had some unfinished business at the elite level. In the fall of her senior year, Brittany earned a spot on the worlds team, helping Canada qualify a full team to the Olympic Games, and in 2016, she tag-teamed NCAA competition with the Canadian elite track.

Though she had the option to defer college gymnastics for a season so she could focus on qualifying for the Olympic Games, Brittany’s goal was to finish her Georgia career alongside the same class she started it with, and even though it meant a crazy schedule, she stuck to it. One weekend, she won the all-around at a home meet against Florida on a Friday night and then traveled to Nova Scotia to compete some exhibition routines at Elite Canada on Sunday. In April, she won vault and bars medals as a member of Canada’s Pacific Rim Championships team and then the following weekend, she helped Georgia reach the Super Six at NCAA Championships.

After finishing her NCAA career on a high note, Brittany returned to Canada, securing a spot on her second Olympic team after posting the top all-around score on the second day of Olympic Trials. She competed three events in Rio that summer, and then continued competing elite over the next couple of years, winning vault gold at Universiade in 2017 and then bars silver at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. Though she currently focuses more on coaching than competing now, 25-year-old Brittany still hasn’t officially retired.

Brenna Dowell

Reaching the senior level in 2012, Brenna – one of the country’s top juniors up until this point – was at a bit of a disadvantage going into the Olympic selection process. Even though she wasn’t a top contender for the team that year, she still qualified to the Olympic Trials, where she finished a solid ninth place all-around.

Similar to Mackenzie Caquatto, Brenna emerged as one of the top seniors in the country in the year following the Olympic Games, consistently finishing among the top in the country over the next couple of years, winning the all-around title at the Mexican Open in 2013, the silver medal at the American Cup in 2014, and serving as the worlds alternate in both years.

Brenna began competing for the University of Oklahoma in the 2015 season, and after being named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, she announced that she would defer for a season so she could focus on training elite with the hopes of making the 2016 Olympic team. She made the worlds team that year, getting the piked double front named for her on floor, but a disappointing bars performance in qualifications took her out of the team final.

In 2016, Brenna returned with excellent performances in pretty much all of her meets, looking especially incredible at the Olympic Trials to place tenth all-around and fourth on bars. She didn’t make the Olympic team, but was thrilled with her strong finish, and then returned for her remaining three years of NCAA eligibility, helping Oklahoma to two national team titles and becoming an individual national champion on vault in 2018 and on floor in 2019.

Olivia Vivian

Olivia was an elite standout from the moment she hit the senior scene in Australia, making the world championship teams in 2005 and 2006 before earning a spot on the team that traveled to Beijing for the Olympic Games in 2008, where she put up the team’s best score on uneven bars to help them to a best-ever sixth place finish.

Following her Olympic success, Olivia traveled to the United States to attend Oregon State University, and though injuries and illnesses held her back as a freshman, she soon became one of the top contributors for the Beavers, becoming a Pac 10 bars champion in 2011 and a regional bars champion as a senior a year later.

When Olivia returned home from college, she knew she wasn’t yet done with gymnastics, and she once again became one of Australia’s best, winning the silver on bars and the bronze on floor at nationals in 2014 to make the Commonwealth Games team, where she finished fifth all-around, helping her team to a silver medal finish as well.

Olivia also competed at worlds that year, contributing on all four events in qualifications to help Australia reach the team final, and though she attempted to return from injuries at nationals in 2016, a scary bars fall ended her meet, and her career.

Thankfully, the injury wasn’t severe, and though she had to leave gymnastics behind, Olivia became a fan-favorite competitor on Australian Ninja Warrior, and she also opened and ran a plumbing-themed cafe called The Leaky Tap in memory of her father.

Toni-Ann Williams

Though Toni-Ann grew up in Maryland, both of her parents are from Jamaica, and while she was training as a Level 10 gymnast in 2010, she decided to also compete elite for the Jamaica national team, making her major international debut at world championships in 2011.

Toni-Ann missed out on the Olympic Games in 2012, but she continued to compete simultaneously at both the Level 10 and elite levels, and in 2015, she made her collegiate debut for Cal, quickly becoming one of the program’s best gymnasts of all time. After qualifying as an individual to NCAA Championships that spring, she then brought her focus back to the elite level, earning an individual spot at the 2016 Olympic Games to become Jamaica’s first female Olympic gymnast in history.

After her success in Rio, Toni-Ann returned to Cal and hoped to come back for a second Olympic experience in 2020. Unfortunately, an Achilles injury kept her out of the 2017 season and a second Achilles injury took her down in her redshirt senior season in 2019, leaving her with no time to get back to the elite level before qualifications start this fall, and forcing her into retirement.

Still, Toni-Ann remained the most vocal supporter of the Cal Bears, and her spirit was recognized as being a driving force for the team, especially in her mentorship with freshman Milan Clausi, who like Toni-Ann qualified for nationals as an individual in her first year with the program.

Danusia Francis

Danusia was one of Great Britain’s fastest-rising new seniors in the 2012 quad, competing at both European Championships and then the world championships in 2011 before being named an alternate for the 2012 Olympic team.

Following her experiences in England, Danusia moved to the United States in order to attend UCLA as a member of the gymnastics team, and she quickly became a superstar on the squad, bringing an incredible performance quality to her routines as well as showing off unique skills, such as a transverse side aerial directly into a layout full off the side of the beam, which became her signature dismount.

Shortly after her junior year at UCLA, Danusia returned to elite to again put up a challenge for the Olympic Games, although this time around she would be representing Jamaica instead of Great Britain. Danusia competed well at worlds, securing a spot for Jamaica at the Olympic Test Event, which at the time was the final qualifier for individuals, but unfortunately for her, the spot was awarded to her teammate, Toni-Ann Williams.

This didn’t deter Danusia, however. She graduated with the NCAA beam title in her senior season at UCLA, and then got back to work training for the next step, returning to elite competition again in 2018 with strong finishes at both the Pan Am Championships and at worlds later that year.

As Jamaica’s top competitor, and as one of the top all-arounders from smaller programs around the globe, Danusia has a strong chance at finally making her Olympic dreams come true in 2020.

Shallon Olsen

Shallon is still at the beginning of her NCAA career, having just finished her freshman season for the University of Alabama, where she consistently made the lineups on vault, beam, and floor, competing a similar level of difficulty that she had in her elite routines.

A part of the Canadian national program since she was about ten years old, Shallon is widely known for her talent on vault. She was a member of Canada’s Olympic team in 2016, making the vault final in Rio in her first year at the senior level, and she has since competed at two world championships, winning the silver medal on vault last fall in Doha.

In order to compete at worlds last year, Shallon – who had already started her program at Alabama – had to take a couple of weeks out of school, keeping up with her studies on the road so she wouldn’t have to miss out on an entire semester for one competition. While she focused on solely on NCAA during the competitive season this spring, not returning home for camps or meets like Elite Canada and Gymnix, she kept training her full difficulty on the side in order to return to elite competition this summer, with the hopes of challenging for another vault medal at worlds this year, where she’ll also be crucial in helping Canada qualify a full team to the 2020 Olympic Games.

It’s unclear if Shallon will defer for a year next season to prepare for Tokyo, or if she’ll do what 2016 teammate Brittany Rogers did by juggling both NCAA and elite at the same time, but either way, she’s likely to remain one of Canada’s top contenders for the Games.

Courtney McGregor

Courtney became the first gymnast from New Zealand to make it to the Olympic Games in almost two decades, and her 41st-place spot in all-around qualifications was the strongest finish for a kiwi athlete in history.

A month after competing in Rio and at just 17 years of age, Courtney moved to the United States to begin her studies  – and her NCAA gymnastics career – at Boise State University, where she has consistently been a key contributor on all four events in her three years at the university, especially on bars, where she tied the all-time top scoring record of 9.975 in March of this year.

In 2017, after finishing her freshman season at Boise State, Courtney made the decision to continue competing at the elite level, and she took a short break from school in the fall of her sophomore year to attend world championships in Montreal.

Now going into her senior year, Courtney has her sights set on Tokyo 2020, and will juggle her university schedule with attempting to qualify to her second Olympic Games at world championships this fall.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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11 thoughts on “Our Favorite NCAA-to-Elite Glow-Ups

  1. Pingback: Our Favorite NCAA-to-Elite Glow-Ups | Masters Gymnastics

  2. This is an amazing list! I had no idea Olivia Vivian did NCAA. Personally, Kate Richardson was one of my favorite athletes that did both elite/NCAA

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks lauren for making me rewatch kelly gerrisons beam routine!! She moves in such a unique way! And she‘s so fast 😍😍😍
    I can’t stop wathing it

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Around the Gymternet: You are a fishmonger. | The Gymternet

  5. Excellent job, Lauren. You actually covered this a while ago in a “You asked…” which is partly what I relied on, along with a post by Maria at mcsmaria.blogspot*dot*com, to put together a similar post on my own gym2day blog in June of 2018, entitled “In Through The Out Door: Going From NCAA to Elite Gymnastics?” I included a link to your “You asked…” & gave you credit for assembling so much great information, as I always try to do if I refer to anything you’ve published. For my blog I didn’t have much of any info you didn’t already know, but I’m curious to know if you happened to see my blog post?

    Like

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