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Gymnastics: Recent GHSA rule change gives hope and relief to frustrated coaches
West Forsyth gymnastics head coach Ashley Owen celebrates with her team after the Wolverines won the state gymnastics championship on April 21, 2017 at Ola High School. Owen was one of the forces behind a recent rule change that will give West a better shot at repeating its title. - photo by Micah Green

On Monday, as she was standing with West Forsyth athletic director Brett Phipps, Ashley Owen received a text message that made her burst into tears.

The tears were the joyful kind, because Owen, the Wolverines’ head gymnastics coach, had just heard from county athletic director Nathan Turner that the GHSA’s executive committee had passed a bylaw that would give her team a much better shot at winning its second straight state title.

High school gymnastics is unique in the state in a number of aspects, and one of particular note is the restrictiveness of its substitution policy. Before a meet, coaches must submit a roster of four competitors for each of the four events. They can choose two alternates, but those athletes can only be used in the event of an injury.

And this year, that aspect of the sport has intersected with another one of its quirks: The influence of the club scene. If a high school gymnast wants to have a chance to compete in college, they have to be in a club program. Club gymnastics, where the vast majority of college scouting takes place, takes precedence over high school gymnastics.

The GHSA state preliminary meet takes place on Saturday, which is the third day of the USAG Region 8 Level 9-10 regional meet. The former is in Dunwoody, and the latter is in Bradenton, Florida. The state’s best high school gymnasts, including four from Forsyth County, will be at the regionals, and their absence at the state prelims could make the team scores and standings there significantly different from what they would be if those top gymnasts were present.

“It sucks,” Owen said. “I’m not going to lie – it sucks. I guess the comforting factor, as a coach, is I know I’m not the only one that’s affected.”

West will be missing Ella Castellanos and reigning All-County Gymnast of the Year Sienna Schreiber; Lambert won’t have two-time defending county all-around champion Brianna Greenlow; and South Forsyth will be without Sarah Wilson, who qualified individually for the vault at last year’s state meet. Other area schools, like Buford, Northview and Milton, will be down important high-level gymnasts as well.

It’s unclear whether the GHSA was aware of the conflict between the two meets when scheduling the state prelims. The regionals were set back in January 2017, and state championship events are typically scheduled the spring before the new school year. Lucia Norwood, the state gymnastics coordinator, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

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Lambert's Brianna Greenlow poses after finishing a routine at the Forsyth County Gymnastics Championship on Saturday, March 25, 2017. - photo by Michael Chung
This also isn’t the first time a conflict between GHSA and USAG events has arisen. It happened as recently as 2015, when the prelims took place on April 18, during the weekend of the Level 9-10 meet. Forsyth Central head coach Laurie Karickhoff doesn’t have a gymnast this year affected by the conflict, but she has in the past. She recalled one gymnast from an opposing school competing at prelims and regionals on the same day, taking a flight out in order to make both meets.

In the past, the lineup that a coach submitted for prelims was the one they had to stick with for the rest of the postseason. Unless there was an injury, there were no substitutions allowed specifically for the state finals. If a gymnast couldn’t make the prelims, they couldn’t compete in the state finals, even if they would be in town for the latter meet. The restrictiveness of that rule had been discussed in the past, Karickhoff said, but nothing was done to spur action.

That may have been due to the relative lack of attention gymnastics received, Karickhoff theorized, or possibly because the conflict between meets happened infrequently enough that schools didn’t see the point of seriously pursuing a fix. That seems to have changed this year, though.

“I think it took somebody really passionate, like Ashley Owen,” Karickhoff said, “who has a really good chance at repeating her team’s (state) championship, to really see the flaw in the rule as it was written.”

Owen was part of a group of county coaches who went to the meeting of the state gymnastics committee this past Sunday in Macon, the day before the state executive committee met, to show support for a proposal to let coaches make substitutions between the prelims and finals. The gymnasts wouldn’t be able to place in individual competitions, but their contributions would count towards the team totals.

The essence of the pitch in favor of the proposal, delivered with help from Turner, was that gymnastics should have the same flexibility given to sports like wrestling and football, where coaches can shuffle around competitors to get the best matchups in a dual match or sit a quarterback who’s performing poorly.

“I told one of the ADs when I was down there, ‘I just don’t know how you’re going to look at a gymnast and say, ‘Every other sport will have the opportunity, except for you,’” said Lambert coach Kara Dicesare, who also made the trip down.

Those ideas were not accepted by every member of the committee. Committee member Jason Miller, the superintendent of Lee County Schools, said that one opposing viewpoint he heard focused on the possibility of gymnasts who were more talented but had competed less for their school taking away spots from competitors that had seen more high school competition.

“It was kind of terrifying to go up against people who are very set in their ways,” Owen said.

But Miller voted in favor of the proposal, as did three other committee members, and it was recommended by a 4-2 margin. When it came before the executive committee on Monday, the proposal, which was written to be effective immediately, passed with a 62-0 vote.

With the rule changed, gymnasts like Castellanos, Schreiber, Greenlow and Wilson will be able to compete in the state finals, should their teams make it that far.

That part of the deal is still to be decided, of course. Owen, whose team won the county meet handily even without Schreiber in attendance, said that she’s still confident in the Wolverines’ chances, and they’ll have Aundria Crittenden, last year’s state runner-up in the all-around who left club competition due to injuries, competing on beam and floor. South head coach Chris Naffky said that she doesn’t see the hopes of any county team resting on one particular gymnast.

Still, the outcome at prelims will undoubtedly be influenced by the absence its top competitors.

“It’s definitely going to be that asterisk year, unfortunately,” Naffky said.

However, the frustration left with the sport’s issues has been tempered by the thrill of bringing about a significant change in the sport. Conflict between club and high school gymnastics won’t vanish and will probably always be around as long as the two coexist, but athletes and teams now have an extra degree of flexibility and choice.

“It was very empowering,” Owen said of the process. “It was terrifying, but it’s definitely been empowering to know that we’re making a difference.”