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‘We cannot live up to our full potential’: Gymnasts express frustrations over practice facilities

Athlete concerns include lack of soft landings, spacing

<p>Brown gymnasts are only able to to practice specific skills like vault passes a few days a week when traveling to off-campus facilities.</p>

Brown gymnasts are only able to to practice specific skills like vault passes a few days a week when traveling to off-campus facilities.

Almost every Saturday at 6:40 a.m., the women’s gymnastics team boards two vans and drives 20 minutes away from campus to the Ocean State School of Gymnastics Center in Lincoln, RI, to gain access to what most of the gymnasts had previously as level 10, Junior Olympic gymnasts: soft landings.

The gymnastics team’s campus facilities, located on the second floor of the Pizzitola Sports Center, do not have a foam pit or a Resi-Pit mat, which allow for the soft landings needed to do many reps of high-level skills, particularly on floor and vault, according to multiple athletes who spoke with The Herald. Doing too many reps on regular mats like the ones used in competitions can become strenuous on ankles and knees due to the high impact and may increase a gymnast’s risk of injury, athletes explained.

Having received injuries in the current facility, one gymnast believes the lack of soft landings and the cramped space are partially to blame.

Doing gymnastics so early in the morning is “brutal,” gymnast Abby Walsh ’22 said. They are often exhausted, and it can become difficult to warm up for practice. Asta Farrell ’24 said she gets nauseous if she tries to eat that early in the morning, so she will sometimes go to a three hour practice on an empty stomach. 

The team is only able to use the off-campus gym a few times a week, Walsh said. The team goes to the facility on Saturdays, for half their practice time every Monday and Tuesday at 2 p.m. and occasionally other days of the week if athletes ask in advance. After an hour and a half, the team returns to the Pizzitola Center to finish practice and train on beam and bars, as the NCAA trains with a different rail of bars than what’s provided at the off-campus center. If athletes have a 2 p.m. class, they may have to skip training at the off-campus facilities, Walsh added. 

While they would normally practice their skills almost daily, Brown gymnasts are only able to practice certain skills, such as vault passes, a few days a week when traveling to the off-campus facilities. This impacts the team's performance at meets, two gymnasts said, as well as their confidence in their skills when it comes time to compete. 

Gymnasts discuss current facilities

The equipment in the Brown gymnastics practice facility is “top-level and updated each year,” with frequent evaluations of equipment to replace any worn matting or equipment, Head Coach Sara Carver-Milne wrote in an email to The Herald. But since the gym is located on the second floor of the Pizzitola Center and does not have sufficient space, it can’t be modified to include a foam pit, according to Walsh.  

The NCAA has issued several updates to gymnastics equipment standards aimed at preventing injuries and softening landings. These changes include introducing “sting mats,” balance beam pads and an updated vault table with improved cushioning, Assistant Athletic Trainer Kathryn Calpino wrote in an email to The Herald.  

“All of those improvements are available to our athletes, in addition to access to an offsite gym with foam pits to decrease landing loads,” Calpino wrote. 

Because of the lack of a foam pit, athletes don’t use the vault at their practice facility, Walsh said. Gymnasts instead practice their vaults once or twice a week when they go to the off-campus gymnastics center — or sometimes just once a week at a meet. Home meets are not hosted in the team’s practice facility but rather use separate equipment set up in the basketball court on the first floor of the Pizzitola Center, according to Walsh. 

As a Junior Olympic athlete in high school, Walsh said she vaulted onto a hard landing once a week. Every other day she vaulted into a foam pit or another soft landing. She and her peers also worked their tumbling passes with soft landings, practicing them once a week on the spring floor as they would in a meet — “just to protect our ankles.” 

“We’re doing very, very high level skills,” Walsh said. If a gymnast makes a mistake on a regular, harder landing mat, “it’s unforgiving” and risks injury, she added. 

“A big thing about not having good landings in the gym is that it makes us a lot less confident in our gymnastics, just because we don’t do as many reps as we need to,” Walsh said. For the athletes who vault at competitions, “I'd say they trust themselves, but they are a little bit more unsure of what they're going to do.” 

According to Asta Farrell ’24, a shared sentiment on the team is that the lack of access to soft landings and the subsequent lack of repetitions impacts the team's competitive edge at meets.

“Everyone here was a very good, very talented (Junior Olympic) athlete,” Farrell said. With the team’s current facilities, you “can’t do the skills that you used to do. You can’t train the same way you used to. And we go to meets feeling not confident in ourselves because we’re throwing passes on the floor that we’ve literally done maybe one or twice a week.”

Another significant issue, Walsh said, is the lack of space in Brown’s facilities. “It’s super cramped … The gym is set up in a way (so) you can’t add people into it and have it function effectively.” 

“There’s 23 of us, so … where do we go? Where are we supposed to stand? We're always going to be in someone's way,” she added. 

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The uneven bars in the facility are set up so that the high bars are positioned against the floor apparatus, with the bars’ dismount mat positioned half on the 40x40 spring floor, Walsh said. Additionally, only one of the two beams has a dismount mat at the end. When athletes do a routine on the beam without a landing mat, they jump down and get up on the other beam to do their dismount. 

Because the beams are close together, some gymnasts won’t do routines at the same time, Walsh added. “A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go until you’re done with your (skill).’”

Gymnast describes injuries suffered in Brown facilities

In October, Farrell bruised her spine after a mistake on a release move on bars, which required her to transfer from the low bar to the high bar. Upon catching the high bar, Farrell swung backwards and flew off, landing on the floor apparatus just beyond the dismount mat on her chin and chest with her feet over her head.

“Would I not have hurt (my back) if I had done the (skill) right? Yeah,” Farrell said. “But also I shouldn't have to be perfect in order to not seriously get hurt.”

Colin Sullivan, deputy director of athletics for intercollegiate programs, said he was not “familiar with the incident” and could not comment on it as a result.

Farrell explained that at her gym at home, there would be more mats for her to land on, padding her landing if she made a similar mistake. But at Brown’s practice facility, “we don’t have any space … We also don’t have that many mats,” she said. “Even if we did have mats, there’s nowhere to put them anyway.”

“Gymnastics is a really dangerous sport and no one is perfect all the time,” Farrell added. “I shouldn't have to have that expectation of myself just to literally stay safe.”

In late November, when her injury was finally starting to heal, Farrell was practicing without her back brace and could feel she was having an off day. 

Normally, she would have stopped and tumbled on a tumble track or into the foam pit instead, but “we don’t have that option,” she said. “It's kind of just tumble on the floor or don’t tumble at all, and you can’t just not tumble.”  

While doing a pass Farrell is usually consistent on — a two-and-a-half twisting flip out of a roundoff — Farrell landed with a hyperextended knee, tearing her ACL, PCL, LCL and part of a calf tendon. Looking ahead at her recovery, Farrell questioned how she is going to bounce back in the current gymnastics facilities without a tumble track or soft landings. 

“How do you come back to gymnastics in a gym that doesn’t support that?” Farrell said. “How are you going to come back from an injury in a gym like this, where you can’t mess up (or) you’ll get hurt again?”

Athletes, coach consider implications of facilities, equipment

While injuries prevent certain gymnasts who would have otherwise competed from doing so, other gymnasts have stepped up to take their places and performed well, Walsh said. According to Carver-Milne, the team has been working hard to “build depth” in each line-up, resting some individuals while retaining a competitive line-up for each meet. 

“We minimize the amount of impact our student-athletes have on their bodies and ensure they have substantial recovery time,” Carver-Milne wrote. “Injuries occur in every sport at this level, so we work together with our athletic trainer, strength coach and nutritionist to ensure our student-athletes have healthy and safe training and competitive experiences.”

Athletes who specialize in a sport from an early age may be at increased risk for overuse injuries, according to Calpino. These injuries develop over long periods of time and involve some sort of underlying tissue damage as a result of repetitive trauma to that tissue, Calpino wrote. 

“In order to perfect a skill, in gymnastics and (in) any sport, repetition is required,” Calpino added. “It’s important for gymnasts to communicate with their coaches, athletic trainer and strength coach about what they are feeling and for all parties to communicate with each other to create a comprehensive practice, strength and rehab plan in order to prevent overuse injuries.”

Both Walsh and Farrell recalled their visits to the gym when they were being recruited for Brown gymnastics. For Walsh, the facilities weren’t a priority in her decision, but she wishes she had put greater consideration into it. “I don’t think it would’ve changed my mind, but I wish I would’ve thought about it.” 

During Farrell’s official visit to the gymnastics facilities, she recalls thinking, “‘Oh, this can’t be good,’” she said. 

“Of course it was the first thing I noticed,” Farrell added. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is really bad.’” But seeing Brown was very exciting, she said, and when she asked the team about their practice facilities, they responded that there’s an off-campus gym they train at “all the time.” 

“So in my mind, I was like, ‘Okay, that could work,’” Farrell said. “I didn’t realize how big of a problem it would be until (I was) there and I (realized) how frustrating it was to have to go to another gym.” 

Past, future requests for facility upgrades 

In November 2019, Walsh and a few other gymnasts met with Jack Hayes, the athletic director at the time, to lay out the issues the team had with their current facilities, Walsh said. The meeting took place about seven months after the University announced its plans to build a new soccer and lacrosse complex, Walsh added.

Caroline Warren ’21, a former member of Brown’s gymnastics team, also attended the meeting. The gymnasts approached the meeting with “a cautiously optimistic plan,” she said. “Our goal was to bring administrative awareness to the program as a whole including our safety concerns and hopes for the future of Brown Gym.” 

During the meeting, the gymnasts were informed that other programs, including rugby and ice hockey, were “ahead of” them in line for new facilities, Warren said. 

“I believe I speak for my teammates when I say how lucky and proud we feel to compete for Brown,” Warren added. Brown gymnastics “wants to be a competitive program that can offer the best, safest experience to current gymnasts and future Bears.” 

“The current facilities are not in line with that vision,” Warren added.

The University evaluates its facilities based on needs and limitations but also looks at how athletics and recreation facilities fit into institutional planning and University initiatives, Sullivan said. 

“We continue to look at a number of our facilities where there might be opportunities to enhance or improve, and it may mean a new location,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking closely at where there might be opportunities within our athletics footprint to improve a number of programs.” 

“Gymnastics is certainly part of that conversation because it’s an area that we want to continue to improve,” he added.

Walsh hopes that the athletic administration will “listen to us, hear us out and be a little bit more supportive of the smaller teams” in the future, she said.

“We need more space, and we need soft landings,” Walsh said. “It's really frustrating to be in a position where you’re like, ‘I know that we could be so much better, I know that we have so much more potential, (but) we just don't have that ability.’”

Walsh added, “We cannot live up to our full potential in the facility that we’re in now.”



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