While many Georgia fans live for Saturdays in the fall at Sanford Stadium, many also anticipate Stegeman Coliseum housing Georgia gymnastics on Fridays in the winter.
“They’re what a top-level student-athlete should be,” said former Oklahoma gymnast, Olympian and SEC Network play-by-play commentator Bart Conner. “They’re the epitome of it. To me, it’s the best money the university can spend.”
In 2019, Georgia ranked fifth nationally and third in the SEC by averaging 10,093 fans in six meets at Stegeman Coliseum. The SEC also has arguably the most accessible gymnastics on TV than any other conference. The successful TV broadcasts and above-average attendance records have changed perception and increased popularity for gymnastics at Georgia and in the SEC.
Gymnastics has grown into a valued tradition. Georgia gymnastics head coach Courtney Kupets Carter said good teams foster other good teams. With a powerful Georgia football team, she said this makes the teams around it want to be better.
“The SEC, in terms of football, already has this fun, competitive environment and nature,” Kupets Carter said. “I think it trickles down to every sport in the SEC.”
Both Kupets Carter and Conner believe SEC gymnastics began to evolve into its own with the help of two women: Suzanne Yoculan Leebern and Sarah Patterson.
Yoculan Leebern coached Georgia from 1983-2009. Under her reign, Georgia won 10 national titles and 16 SEC titles. Patterson coached Alabama from 1979-2014 and led the Crimson Tide to six national titles and eight SEC titles. These women earned back-to-back championships while building Georgia, Alabama and the SEC into gymnastics powerhouses.
Yoculan Leebern said competitiveness and the spirit of wanting to win coursed through the SEC.
“These two women, Yoculan and Patterson, were, and still remain, icons in the sport,” Conner said. “They took women’s college gymnastics when it was, in many ways, kind of an afterthought, and they made it a big deal.”
Conner mentioned that the rivalry between Georgia and Alabama spurred immense attraction to the sport. If there was only one team dominating, he doesn’t believe it would have drawn the same attention.
Oklahoma gymnastics, Conner’s alma mater, doesn’t draw the same attraction, despite its talent, since it doesn’t have built-in rivals, Conner said. He noted that in 2019, No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 UCLA had over 10,000 fans in attendance. That was the first time those teams reached that mark while it’s the standard for Alabama versus Georgia.
Conner believes SEC gymnastics is the “perfect” 90-minute television show and also attracts families who can bring their young daughters to witness empowered gymnasts.
“TV shined a very bright light on what the experience was like to go to a Georgia gymnastics meet,” Conner said. “More and more people wanted to go. Other schools in the SEC started getting a following and it made the whole brand more valuable. … They felt like they had to be there. The attendance is skyrocketing, and television has played a role there.”
The SEC has turned gymnastics into a product spectators can be a part of, from the marching in of the athletes to the ceremonies and the competition itself, Conner said.
Caroline Ward, a former GymDog from 1996-2000 under Yoculan Leebern, now shares the Georgia gymnastics experience with her 12-year-old, level six gymnast daughter.
Ward said she has taken her daughter to meets at Stegeman Coliseum since she was born. Sometimes they go down to the floor to say hello or simply watch from the stands.
“She looks up to the GymDogs,” Ward said. “I mean, they're her role models, I would say she's asked me probably every year if she can have some GymDogs to her birthday party.”
Ward said that when she competed at Georgia, she didn't realize how a small smile, hello, or a wave to young girls in the stands can influence them, until her daughter, who would practice another former GymDog, Sabrina Vega’s, beam routine at home after watching Vega perform on a Friday night.
“She does not want to miss a meet. She wants to be at every meet if possible,” Ward said. “Then watch it on television. She just really looks up to these girls … and it's complete inspiration for young girls, it’s something to strive towards."
Conner noted that elite gymnastics meets can feature the best gymnasts in the country, or the world, but the SEC crowd and passion that Ward’s daughter and others love, is missing. While elite gymnasts are individualized at clubs, Conner said the culture of SEC gymnastics pulls young ladies into a nurturing, supportive system with teams that value them.
“They march into Stegeman, there’s nearly 10,000 people going crazy for them, and they’re doing gymnastics that’s not as challenging, yet it’s being fully appreciated by fans, judges, and TV audience, and once again they’re saying ‘This why I love gymnastics,’” Conner said. “You hear time and time again that gymnasts are burnt out and lost their passion until they went to college and it became fun again.”
Conner spoke to his experience as both an elite and college gymnast.
“I know both sides,” he said. “I know what that elite pursuit is like, and I know what that college pursuit is like. To me, if you’re a mom, and you’re bringing your 8-year-old daughter to an event like that, it lights her on fire. What a way to inspire a young girl. If you work hard, you can have this, too. They idolize these college gymnasts, and that’s a powerful thing.”
Conner believes SEC women’s gymnastics will continue to thrive based on the fan base and value they bring to these universities. Years ago, people looked down upon collegiate gymnastics, but now, he said it’s the only area where the sport is growing.
“They’re representing their schools with such class and distinction,” Conner said. “If I were a university president, having a top-level women’s gymnastics team would be like a dream team. They get fantastic grades, they’re fully engaged in the community, they’re model university citizens in every way. They’re the full package."