In 2019, when the Ithaca College gymnastics team finished in fifth place nationally and won its first individual–event National Championship since 2011, the team looked poised for success thanks to a solid group of veterans and promising young stars.
However, two years later, and due to the cancellation of the National Championships in 2020 and the entire season in 2021, the team looks very different than it did such a short time ago. Of the 23 members of the team, 16 have never competed at the collegiate level before, including 12 freshmen.
Head coach Richard Suddaby admitted he is not quite sure how the season will go since he has not seen most of the team in competition yet, but he said he has a lot of confidence in the athletes.
“There’s a whole lot of unknowns going [into the season],” Suddaby said. “But I feel like our talent level is quite high.”
The first step for the season, Suddaby said, will be figuring out what the team has in the new members. He said he knows that they are all teachable, but he needs to figure out what they need to learn first.
“They’re very coachable, but you don’t always know what they don’t know,” Suddaby said. “It’s a pretty big transition [from high school to college gymnastics], and so we’re trying to make sure we’re teaching them the things that they need.”
Suddaby also said the team benefits from strong leadership thanks to the returning athletes, like junior Cameryn Nichols, who won the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (NCGA) East Rookie of the Year in 2020.
Nichols, who also took home three NCGA All-American awards during her first season, said she and the other returning team members are just trying to help the freshman gymnasts make the adjustment from high school to college competition.
“Training in college is a lot different than training in high school,” Nichols said. “We’re focusing on training smarter, not necessarily harder.”
Nichols’ first meet was two years ago, and she said she knows what the environment is like at the meets. She said she wants to help her new teammates be ready for that moment.
“I remember being a freshman and the first meet was just such a shock,” Nichols said. “But the energy and team encouragement was all there, and I think once we start competing, we’ll be really great.”
Suddaby said the juniors and seniors on the team are doing a great job of bringing in the new athletes so far.
“[The returners] are stepping up, and I’m really impressed with their leadership,” Suddaby said. “We have some great on-the-ground leadership … it’s a benefit for sure.”
Along with Nichols, senior Julia O’Sullivan has stepped up to take a leadership role. O’Sullivan, who last competed as a sophomore, said she cannot wait to get back out into competition and see what the team has in the new members.
O’Sullivan added that she believes the returners are a much improved group from two years ago. Although they were without a season last year, she said the break gave them time to improve their mental game.
“We’ve definitely taken time to reflect on things that did work and didn’t work in the pre-COVID season,” O’Sullivan said. “Now that we know what worked physically and mentally, we’re already steps ahead of where we were, ready to just pick it back up.”
O’Sullivan said she and her fellow returning gymnasts are trying to transfer those lessons learned to the new members of the team. She said the best way to teach them is to just lead by example.
“We’re showing them where we should be along the way,” O’Sullivan said. “Showing them confidence, composure … and getting them to be more of a team than an individual is the biggest thing.”
Moving from high school to college gymnastics can be hard because of the switch from individual to team competition, Nichols and O’Sullivan said. That is why O’Sullivan said she is trying to emphasize teaching her new teammates how to be a part of the team.
“Before college, you were part of a team but you were competing against each other,” O’Sullivan said. “Now, yes you are up there by yourself, but your individual scores are what is going to make your team win, so represent your school and your team.”
In collegiate gymnastics, each team competes six gymnasts in each event, and the final scores are calculated by the sum of each member’s score of the team. At the end of the season, the top three teams from each region go to the National Championships.
While Suddaby said the goal every season is to make it to Nationals, it is made especially important this year because the championship meet will be held here on South Hill.
O’Sullivan said she believes Ithaca College hosting Nationals this year makes the team want to be there even more than normal.
“Hosting Nationals this year is a little more motivation to get there,” O’Sullivan said. “We have high expectations, to qualify for Nationals, and then once we’re there we’re going to do the best we can to win.”
Even though he said there are challenges ahead for the team, Suddaby said he knows every other school the team will compete against before Nationals is in the same situation.
“This whole region didn’t [compete in 2021], so it’ll be kind of interesting to see how that shakes out,” Suddaby said.
Nichols also said knowing other teams have had similar challenges makes her excited for a season that is going to be different from all the ones before it, but she still knows what the team has to do this season.
“I have big expectations for the team,” Nichols said. “And I think all my teammates do as well. We hold each other accountable in the gym, we make sure everyone’s working. So we all have high expectations for each other.”