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Fisk University Made History: First HBCU in NCAA Gymnastics

Fisk University Is the First HBCU Gymnastics Team to Compete at the NCAA Level

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 06:  Fisk University gymnasts cheer on their teammate during a meet at the Orleans Arena on January 6, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Stew Milne/Getty Images)

On Jan. 6, Nashville's Fisk University became the first HBCU gymnastics team to compete at an NCAA event. The Bulldogs made their debut at the Las Vegas Super 16 invitational, finishing in fourth place. They'll be back on the floor on Jan. 13, competing against the 2021 NCAA champions, the University of Michigan.

"It's humbling," head coach Corrinne Tarver, the first Black gymnast to win the NCAA all-around championship, told ESPN before the meet. "Something that's a long time coming and so I'm so proud to be able to bring the team to the floor that is a historically Black college and university. It's the first time ever so we're ready to go."

The team's strongest performer on the day was Morgan Price, a five-star recruit who competed on all four events — vault, beam, bars, and floor — and earned the meet's highest score on vault with a 9.9. "It feels really cool," Price told ESPN. "We have a lot of eyes on us because we are the first and because we are making history, so it's just so exciting to be a part of the first team ever."

The Super 16 event happened only 14 months after Fisk University first announced the launch of its intercollegiate women's artistic gymnastics team — the first at an HBCU. According to ESPN, when Tarver started recruiting for the team, her first question to potential recruits was always: "Do you want to make history?" For Price and the rest of the team, stepping into Las Vegas's Orleans Arena was certainly a full-circle moment.

Tarver told POPSUGAR in April 2022 that the Bulldogs hope to eventually compete in the NCAA's Division II. Fisk University is part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a smaller alternative to the NCAA that doesn't sponsor gymnastics. According to the Associated Press, the gymnastics team "are competing this year as an independent while waiting to get their NCAA status sorted out." Most of the recruited gymnasts were incoming freshmen who were competing at level 10 in USA Gymnastics (although that's not an outright requirement). Some athletes were brought onto the team with athletic and academic scholarships.

Tarver, who won the NCAA all-around title in 1989 and was the University of Georgia's first Black gymnast, told POPSUGAR that she aims to bring the lessons she learned from her NCAA experience to the team at Fisk, including how to exude confidence and believe you're capable of anything. Tarver was named to the senior US national team in 1985 and 1986 and served for three years as an assistant gymnastics coach at the University of Pennsylvania.

Being on a Georgia team led by former head coach Suzanne Yoculan Leebern, Tarver told us in April 2022, taught her the importance of support and holding athletes accountable for their contributions. "The goal is to have athletes that are going to come in and want to work hard and have pride in themselves, in their sport, in their family, in their institution — and want to represent all of those people to the highest of their ability," she said.

It's always been Tarver's goal to be a role model. "If you tell me I can't, I'm going to prove you wrong. And if people think I shouldn't, then I'm going to prove why I should. I think that we need to be able to show that an HBCU can add a sport like gymnastics and can be successful doing it," she said.

Image Source: Courtesy of Fisk University

Brown Girls Do Gymnastics (BGDG) helped advocate for this historic step at Fisk University. BGDG founder Derrin Moore told POPSUGAR that she and the nonprofit's advisory council (including Rutgers gymnastics head coach Umme Salim-Beasley) began talks with Fisk in November 2020, so the process of locking down a gymnastics program was quick. BGDG has been advocating for gymnastics programs at HBCUs for the last seven years.

"For so long, gymnastics has been seen as a white-dominant sport."

"For so long, gymnastics has been seen as a white-dominant sport," Moore said. "And for so long, even the Black community has looked at gymnastics as a sport that's not for Black folks." Tarver agreed, saying she believes her generation led the charge for the shift in the sport's perception. In 1992, Team USA's Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino became the first Black gymnasts to win Olympic medals. Tarver thinks the biggest change took place two decades later in 2012, when gymnast Gabby Douglas became the first woman of color and the first Black woman to win the Olympic all-around title. Tarver also pointed to record-setting Simone Biles, for obvious reasons (she's the GOAT).

Corrinne Tarver at the University of Georgia

Photo: Corrinne Tarver, then Corrinne Wright, competing for the University of Georgia. Image source: Courtesy of University of Georgia Athletics.

Beyond the elite level, many Black gymnasts are at the forefront of NCAA gymnastics. Take UCLA alum Nia Dennis and current UCLA members Jordan Chiles, Chae Campbell, Margzetta Frazier, and Sekai Wright. The 2022 season also brought Florida's Trinity Thomas and Nya Reed, Denver's Lynnzee Brown, Auburn's Derrian Gobourne, Minnesota's Mya Hooten, and more into the spotlight. Their routines have gone viral and helped widen the fan base of college gymnastics far beyond self-proclaimed "gym nerds." Generally speaking, however, Black gymnasts continue to face a culture of racism within the NCAA (read up on the reported turmoil at UCLA last season), and an NCAA database reported that, as of 2021, Black gymnasts still made up only eight percent of gymnasts across divisions.

Following the successful launch of the Fisk team, Tarver plans to work with BGDG to start gymnastics programs at other HBCUs. "We just need one," Moore said. "We just need one, and then the others will follow."

Tarver added: "There are so many young Black athletes out there and gymnasts, specifically, and many of them would love the opportunity to go to an HBCU — but they can't if they want to do the sport, because it's not available. That needs to change." Both Tarver and Moore hope the program at Fisk is just the beginning.

Image Source: Getty Images / Stew Milne
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