UVM Forces Gymnastics to Call it Quits After Two Decades in NCAA

UVM’s men’s and women’s gymnastics teams will hold their final varsity meets March 24. The teams will no longer exist due to the athletic department cut ting the programs last fall. The University, in pursuit of becoming a more academically-focused school, has cut five out of the 27 varsity programs, including gymnastics, which started as a non-scholarship varsity program in 1981. Three of the top six teams with the highest GPAs are being cut next year, including volleyball (second), men’s gymnastics (third), and men’s track and field (sixth). Last year, UVM’s men’s gymnastics team was ranked number one in the nation for academics. Team members range from mechanical and electrical engineering majors to psychology majors. “They epitomize the scholar athlete, and they are getting rid of those scholar athletes,” said Gary Bruening, who has been head coach since 1986. “It’s ironic, with the University putting its focus on more of an academic school.” According to many, including Bruening, the focus of college athletics has turned to winning in the past few years. “When I was hired, I was told the win-loss column wasn’t important,” said Bruening. “What was important was creating a positive athletic educational experience. Welfare was important. But the school changed the ground rules, and didn’t give us a chance to catch up.” Women’s captain senior Allyson Schneider agrees. “It’s so frustrating. We’ve improved so much, and we’re being cut.” The teams’ record combined for ECAC meets is 3-3, with only a few meets left to go in the season. The men’s hockey team’s ECAC record, however, finished up at 3-18-1. “It’s so frustrating to see money just being dumped on some programs, such as basketball and hockey,” said Schneider. “Especially those teams with little or no improvement. We have had so much improvement, it is just very frustrating.” Both teams are non-scholarship. This year’s operating budget for both teams combined is between 15,000 and 20,000 dollars. Men’s co-captain junior Andrew Schaus sees frustration lying in the scholarship programs. “It’s hard to see the kids who have full rides here who never compete, and then see three of the most scholarly programs being cut.” The school will also lose 14,000 dollars in funding from the NCAA. With the program being non-scholarship, tuition dollars will also be lost as some of the gymnasts may opt to transfer to schools with varsity programs. “We have four athletes transferring that are from out of state,” said Bruening. “That’s 100,000 dollars lost each year in tuition, and almost half a million for four years.” Losing alumni support is also a possibility. “After we lost the football team, alumni were mad,” said Bruening. “Now, after 30 years, they are still irritated. After cutting these teams, they are doing the same thing. The school has shot themselves in the foot for this one.” Schaus is most disappointed about losing the ability for alumni to come back and see the program. “We had our alumni meet recently,” said Schaus. “And to see all the alums come back with their families and show them what they did here at UVM, that is great. I will never have the opportunity to do that now, I can’t show that to my family.” The real reason why the teams were cut, according to Bruening, lies not in winning, not in money, but in value. “It’s an issue of value. People didn’t value the gymnastics program. They value hockey, and that really hurts. There isn’t an appreciation for the Olympic sports. If money was the issue, the school should have taken the high road and told us that we could fundraise first, and then cut. But they took the low road and cut first, and then told us we could fundraise. “They didn’t want to put the work and effort into fundraising for these teams. And unfortunately, the athletes have to bear the brunt of a decision made way above the athletic department.” The teams have faced the hardships of the year with a collective goal: to be successful. “It’s been amazing,” said freshman Betsy Dominico. “We’ve really come together to make it a great season. Everyone is so supportive. When you land a vault, everyone comes and gives you a hug, even if you lost.” All agree that the teams have been supportive and cohesive all season. Schaus can attribute this to their out-of-gym time together. “We have team study sessions, where we work together and help each other out. We also get together once a month, we’ve been cliff diving, had BBQs.” Bruening also sees the importance of outside contact. “They are teammates and friends. When bad things happened, they rallied the troops and grew closer together. We have a strong, cohesive team, and that has helped tremendously with individual and team performance.” With the final season for the varsity program drawing to a close, it will not be the end of gymnastics at UVM. The teams already have plans to become a top-ranked club team. “It’s a new way of thought,” said Bruening. “We have 14-15 returnees for next year, and I will be the advisor and coach for the club. We will have the chance to become one of the top three club teams in the nation.” In the end, even though gymnastics might only be a small piece of UVM, Bruening believes it is an important one. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You keep taking away small pieces, small pieces and eventually the picture changes. You keep ending small programs, and the University will change its picture.” For Bruening, this phase of gymnastics should be remembered as a positive and successful one. “It should be remembered as a sport that opens its doors to anyone willing to commit maximum academics and athleticism, and a program that cared about the emotional and social well-being of the athletes. “Our gymnasts mature and progress as valued members of the community by graduation. This is model program, and I feel good about being a part of that. I am very proud, and it has been a privilege to coach these athletes.”