The last home meet for the University of Illinois at Chicago’s women’s gymnastics team is about to start and the hallway outside the arena is buzzing with pre-meet jitters and a cacophony of cheers. Sixteen UIC gymnasts are standing in line, wearing black warmups and white ribbons in their high buns. As they wait to enter the arena, the opposing team walks over.
They aren’t there to taunt them. Instead, they hand each of the UIC gymnasts a bouquet of flowers.
“Hey UIC,” says Northern Illinois University’s head coach, Sam Morreale. “We don’t wanna make a huge deal about this, but … we love you guys. Continue to rock this season out.”
This isn’t just the UIC gymnastics team’s final home meet of the season — it’s their last home meet ever. Out of the blue last fall, UIC’s athletic director announced plans to cut the women’s and men’s gymnastics program.
The women fight back tears as they hug their opponents.
“Look at the light, it helps the tears to not drip down,” freshman Tirzah Delph says to her teammate, not wanting to ruin her competition makeup.
And then, it’s time to focus. They line up, one athlete at the front and one at the back holding a torch with a live flame, representing the UIC’s Flames mascot. The athletes take a deep breath and walk into the arena.
The competition has begun.
The women’s team is having a spectacular season so far, winning ten of 12 regular season meets. The team is ranked 35th in the nation. The top 36 teams make it to NCAA regionals, one of the most prestigious competitions for intercollegiate gymnastics. Their performance at a meet this weekend in Louisiana will help determine if they qualify for the championship, something the team hasn’t done in six years.
Meanwhile, the men’s team, a younger group of freshmen and sophomores, has struggled with consistency in competitions. James Marden, the team’s captain, says he’s focusing on everyone doing their best during their championship meet next month.
A life of gymnastics
Competing on the collegiate level is something many of these gymnasts have aimed for since they started the sport as toddlers.
“I was really energetic as a kid,” says sophomore Kayla Baddeley whose mother put her in gymnastics when she was four years old. “I would jump on the bed, be all over the place. So they thought that putting me in gymnastics would tame me a little bit.”
Baddeley’s mom passed away when she was nine, and her father passed away a few years later. Doing gymnastics makes her feel connected to her mom.
“I was very shy and it takes me a while to get comfortable with people. And going into [the] gym and getting such close friends, it makes me feel like someone is always there for me,” she says. “Gymnastics helps me come out my shell.”
Performing on the collegiate level has gotten rarer over the decades as the number of programs at colleges and universities has declined. For women, there are about 60 Division 1 programs nationally. For men, there are only about 20 teams for all divisions.
For many of these athletes, the attraction to UIC extends beyond sports. It’s a large university in a vibrant city that also has good academic programs. About half of the athletes come from outside Illinois.
“What really drew me to UIC was the coaches,” says senior Miki Northern, referring to long-time coaches Peter and Mary Jansson, a married couple. They came to UIC in 1990, when the team’s winning record was an abysmal 20 percent. They helped build a winning program over three decades, bringing the team to NCAA regionals nine times.
Northern says when she was getting recruited by colleges, coaches at other schools were purely focused on what she could do to help the team.
“Then I talked to Peter and it was like a conversation,” she says. He’d ask about her school and her parents. “I’m like ‘Wow, he cares about me and my well-being.’ I want someone looking out for me like that while I’m competing and when in school.”
During their time at UIC, the Janssons have seen the team ebb and flow. There were strong years, when there was lots of money for scholarships. The most successful season was 2011-2012. The current senior class was the start of an upward swing.
“If you would’ve talked to us in the beginning of August you could not have found people who were more excited about where the program was going to be the next three years,” Peter Jansson says.
‘I could barely speak’
During the first week of the fall semester, the gymnasts and their coaches got an evening email calling them into a meeting the next morning. The students had no idea what was coming.
Just a few minutes after they gathered, they were told the 2018-19 season would be their last. The gymnasts were offered only a vague explanation for the decision.
“Everyone’s mouth just dropped open, especially the freshman,” says junior Maddie Nowak. “I glanced to them first. Can you imagine? You don’t even know where your class is [and] now you have to think, ‘Oh, am I going to a completely different school next year?’”
Students say everyone cried as they tried to get answers from the athletic director.
“I called my mom after, in tears. I could barely speak,” says James Strevey, a junior on the men’s team. “We’d worked our whole lives to get to this point, and it was heartbreaking knowing your whole life’s work has been taken from you for no reason.”
The coaches didn’t have a lot of time to prepare either. They were told 30 minutes before the students.
UIC refused multiple requests to speak to WBEZ for this story. They would not answer written questions either. In the email sent to all students announcing that gymnastics would end, the university would only say it wasn’t able to provide a world-class student athlete experience for all its teams, citing limited athletic training space and facilities as well as over-extended staff.
“Our current model does not allow us to offer the tools to provide a positive experience for 20 teams and continuing to operate in such a way is irresponsible to all of our student-athletes,” Athletic Director Garrett Klassy said in the announcement. Klassy came to UIC last year.
UIC hired an outside firm to conduct an internal review of the department, which included possibly reducing the sports offered. In addition to gymnastics, the report considered eliminating swimming or track. In the end, the consultant recommended gymnastics because it would save the athletic program the most money — $750,000 annually, according to the report.
The university told students all scholarships will be honored for gymnasts. While two students on the men’s team immediately transferred, the rest stayed and are still considering their options.
‘It’s a choice’
For those who watch intercollegiate athletics closely, this move isn’t all that surprising.
“Anytime sports are dropped, virtually 100 percent of the time, it’s a choice based upon the priorities hav[ing] shifted to more commercially viable sports,” says Dave Ridpath, who teaches about and researches intercollegiate athletics and the NCAA at Ohio University.
Ridpath says the focus turns to sports like basketball and football, which bring in more money and attention. But that success can be rare and inconsistent.
“You see these flashes at small schools where they’re nationally competitive,” Ridpath says. “The bad residual part is that now every school, regardless of size, thinks they can do the same thing. So basketball coaches at, say, a UIC will say ‘Look at what Loyola did,’ and say, ‘We can do that, too.’”
Last year, Loyola University Chicago made national headlines when it advanced to the Final Four in the NCAA March Madness national competition, a historic run.
Coaches and athletes say they believe UIC is considering moving to a more competitive conference called the Atlantic 10, based on the consultant’s report. The report provided a detailed evaluation of UIC’s athletic program compared to schools in that conference. UIC currently competes in the Horizon League.
Flip the decision
The only athlete who was not at the meeting last year was senior Miki Northern. She was home recovering from surgery after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer over the summer.
“I reacted worse to the program getting shut down than I did to finding out I had cancer,” Northern says. “Which is weird to most people but … I’ve had surgeries in the past and, if this is what I had to do, I can get past it. But the program … I don’t know what we can do.”
She’s now in remission. When she returned to school last fall, she joined her fellow gymnasts as they tried to fight the decision.
Some met with the athletic director to see what they could do to save the program. They say he told them they would have to raise more than $25 million to reinstate gymnastics. Others went to the University of Illinois’ Board of Trustees to plead their case.
The team also started a social media campaign using the hashtag #flipthedecision to protest the move. It got support from gymnastics programs across the country. At competitions, other teams would even wear UIC apparel or t-shirts that said “flip the decision.”
As all this was happening, the coaches had their own decisions to make.
“We decided that the gym was going to become a sanctuary for these kids and a place of joy and hard work,” coach Mary Jansson says. “The only thing we can leave with at the very, very end is, ‘How did we carry ourselves through this situation?’ We have to carry ourselves with grace and still be respectful.”
‘It’s going to be different now’
The prospect of making it to NCAA regionals is in the back of many of the gymnasts’ minds. But the coaches are careful not to pressure the team.
In the gym, students say it doesn’t feel like the final season.
“Honestly, it hits me most on days when I have a good meet or good practice,” Nowak says. “Those are the days I go home satisfied, yet disappointed because I try to imagine myself at this point next year and realize that I most likely will not be competing.”
Some of the younger students are waiting until the end of the season to decide whether to transfer. They’re struggling with the idea of leaving their school and friends. Some are planning to stay because they have scholarships and can’t afford college elsewhere.
In many ways, Miki Northern has it easiest. She’s graduating this spring after a full college gymnastics career. But she says it’s bittersweet.
“I wanted to come back for alumni meets,” Northern says. “I wanted to be able to continue to celebrate the team, celebrate UIC, and it’s going to be different now.”
For today, the focus is on the competition this weekend. The team will know by Saturday night if they qualify for NCAA regionals.
On this all-important weekend, Coach Peter Jansson is thinking only about finishing with their heads high.
“To be able to finish with that mark, it would be truly incredible,” he says.