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The First H.B.C.U. Gymnastics Team Is Aiming Even Higher

NASHVILLE — In early August, a video of a group of female gymnasts stretching, tumbling into a foam pit, and smiling for a group selfie went viral. En route to amassing nearly one million views on TikTok, the video was picked up by several news outlets.

The athletes were clearly talented — their aerials and back layouts on balance beam stuck without even a glimpse of a wobble. But there was something more notable about the young women in the video: They compete at Fisk University in Nashville, on the first intercollegiate gymnastics team at any historically Black college or university.

Fisk University gymnasts performing a tumbling routine.

“They’ve never seen anything like this before, and people of color are kind of dominating right now in the gymnastics world, in the elite world,” said Aliyah Reed-Hammon, a freshman gymnast from Milwaukee. “They’re like, ‘Oh they’re going to be a really good team. They’re just going to bring it.’”

In the United States, gymnastics is seen as a largely white sport, especially among college teams, even though there are numerous Black women who have succeeded at the top levels, including Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Jordan Chiles. Indeed, Black girls have been successful in the sport for decades, despite the taxing nature of gymnastics, with a culture that has included physical and mental abuse, and with relatively low participation rates nationwide for women and girls of color.

Makaila Vincent putting chalk on her hands at the the Nashville Gymnastics Center.
Alexis Mhando stretching at the Nashville Gymnastics Center.

In 1983, Dianne Durham became the first Black woman to win the U.S.A. Gymnastics senior national championship and beat Mary Lou Retton to take the all-around title at the McDonald’s International Gymnastics Championship in Los Angeles. The next year, she was left off the Olympic team as she dealt with injuries. Durham died last year at age 52.

“I don’t love hypotheticals, but I do think it’s important to say: Our very understanding of the face of gymnastics could have been a Black girl in ’84,” said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State, whose podcast “American Prodigies” explores the experience of Black women and girls in gymnastics. “If we miss that, we miss the mechanisms of power that actively marginalized Black girls.”

Sports have long been a part of the fabric of H.B.C.U.s, many of which were established with land grants specifically to cater to nonwhite students. But gymnastics programs at those schools previously did not exist.

That’s why Derrin Moore, founder of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, chose to make the nonprofit’s H.B.C.U. campaign a central part of its mission. Moore remembers being a young gymnast in the 1980s and seeing the disgust on her white teammates’ faces when oils from her hair would leave the vinyl mats slick. She remembers coaches who criticized her body and the way she danced during her floor routine, enlisting another girl to show her how to do it the “right way.”

Madalynn Conners practicing on bars for the first time as Coach DeAvera Todd cheers her on.

“There were just these things that people didn’t recognize as an issue for all these Black girls,” Moore said. “And nobody said anything about it because we’re in the sport of gymnastics, so Black people don’t really have a say.”

Founded in 2015, the organization’s work includes camps and conferences for gymnasts and their families to help them navigate the sport, as well as lobbying efforts to increase the number of Black judges in competitions. One of its primary concerns: the lack of gymnastics programs at H.B.C.U.s.

From left to right, Rhylee Topps, Rhyan Cameron, Morgan Brown and Alyssa Pace during a break.
Kaleigh Mull vaulting while being spotted by Coach Morgan Byrd.

During Thanksgiving break in 2021, Frank Sims, the chairman of the Fisk board of trustees at the time, heard that his great-niece would have to attend a predominantly white institution if she wanted to continue her gymnastics career. Within days, he was on the phone with Moore, inquiring about an alternative. Soon after he arranged for Moore to speak to the entire board.

There were many questions: How many Black women compete in gymnastics? How long would it take to build a team? Would athletes at other schools be willing to transfer? Moore answered them well enough that a call with Vann Newkirk Sr., Fisk’s president at the time, came next.

By Feb. 11, during Black History Month, Brown Girls Do Gymnastics was sharing Fisk’s announcement about the creation of its team. “This women’s gymnastics program will embody all the qualities that define the Fisk experience: excellence, determination and a commitment to a better tomorrow,” Newkirk said.

Aliyah Reed-Hammon competed as a level 10 gymnast, the highest level, in the U.S.A. Gymnastics Junior Olympics program, during her senior year in high school. She was planning to run track in college — until she saw the Fisk announcement and immediately applied.

“It really interested me because I like the idea of being surrounded by people that look like me,” she said.

Leeiah Davis, a freshman from Grayson, Ga., about halfway between Atlanta and Athens, shared a similar sentiment. She loves Black history and culture and always wanted to attend an H.B.C.U. “I would tell my mom, ‘It’d be so dope if we had a gymnastics team just full of Black girls,’” Davis said. “That would shock the world. Literally.”

Fisk University gymnasts lined up to introduce themselves at the Brown Girls Do Gymnastics Conference in July. From left, Zyia Coleman, Liberty Grace Mora, Aliyah Reed-Hammon, Hailey Clark and Leeiah Davis.

In a move that shocked the gymnastics world, the five-star recruit Morgan Price de-committed from Arkansas, a top-20 Division I program coached by the Olympian Jordyn Wieber, to join Fisk.

“I have always wanted to be an H.B.C.U. gymnast, but I just never had the opportunity because there wasn’t an H.B.C.U. with the gymnastics team,” she told Sports Illustrated.

Like when cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 recruit in his class, switched from Florida State to Deion Sanders’s Jackson State, Price’s turnabout was notable given that Fisk, like other H.B.C.U.s, has drastically less resources than other predominantly white universities.

In 2020, Fisk was finally released from probation by the body that grants the university’s accreditation. Initial concern was rooted in Fisk’s finances, which were strained due to flagging enrollments. The school’s finances and enrollment numbers appear to be on the upswing, but years of struggles and outdated infrastructure will likely take a while to overcome.

Currently, while the administration works to raise $2 million to build a new gym, the team is splitting practices between two nearby club gyms.

Parents watching balance beam routines.

But for the members of the gymnastics team, none of that matters. They know they’re working hard and making history. And they trust that Corrinne Tarver, their coach, who was also named Fisk’s new athletic director in July, will do the rest. “She was like, you have to trust the process,” Davis said.

If there is a person ideally suited to lead this first-of-its kind program — really, to lead the charge of making gymnastics more welcoming to women of all backgrounds — it is Tarver. While attending Georgia, Tarver became the first Black woman to take first in the all-around at the N.C.A.A. championships. She has also coached at the club and collegiate levels — including at the University of Pennsylvania — and has worked in college athletic administration for a decade.

But Tarver has her work cut out for her. She got permission to hire a full-time athletics trainer, the school’s first, to travel with the gymnastics team. She is working to outfit the training room and bring it up to N.C.A.A. standards — a necessity as she also applies to move the athletic department from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to N.C.A.A. Division II. And in addition to the $2 million she’s raising for the construction of a new gym, Tarver is raising funds for the gymnastics program’s general operating costs.

“We’re going to Michigan, and we’re going to Georgia; we’re going to go against these big DI programs,” Tarver said. “We could have kept it smaller, but honestly, with this kind of exposure, we’re going to put ourselves out there.”

The Fisk gymnastics team performing for kids.

Tarver’s efforts aren’t just about the 16 women currently on Fisk’s gymnastics team, or even the other Fisk athletes who will benefit. Those televised meets against larger schools are about allowing young Black and brown gymnasts to see a team full of women who look just like them competing at the elite level, and, hopefully, showing administrators at other H.B.C.U.s that gymnastics programs can be viable, and sustainable, with the proper support.

“I’m not really selling the program,” Tarver told her team. “I’m selling the dream.”

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