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OU women’s gymnastics: K.J. Kindler, returning talent has Sooners’ future bright despite abrupt 2020 ending

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K.J. Kindler and the Sooners

Head coach K.J. Kindler talks to the Sooners after the match against West Virginia and Texas Woman's University on Feb. 14.

In a season of what if’s and what could have been’s across the sporting world, Saturday looms especially large for the OU women’s gymnastics team. 

Oklahoma expected to be at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, competing for its fifth national championship in seven years this evening before the coronavirus outbreak ended the gymnastics season on March 12.

Before the shutdown, the Sooners were 16-0 and were favorites in the title race. In fact, it’s possible that fans saw the greatest OU team ever in 2020. Oklahoma was the only squad in the NCAA with a national qualifying score above 198 and its mark of 198.080 was .055 higher than its magic number from its 2019 undefeated championship season.

Additionally, Oklahoma topped 198 in a meet five times and finished the year ranked first in the nation on vault and bars and third on beam and floor, per roadtonationals.com.

But even with its regular season dominance, OU never found its storybook ending in another national championship, nor did seniors Maggie Nichols, Jade Degouveia and Bre Showers receive the satisfaction of ending their careers on their own terms. 

For former OU star gymnast and current ESPN and SEC color commentator Bart Conner, it’s “heartbreaking,” that the team wasn’t able to make that dream a reality.

“Obviously we all know what the world is up against, and there are much bigger issues than sports events right now,” Conner said. “But it is a shame that it had to kind of come to a crashing halt like this.”

As gymnastics fans await the sport’s reboot, there’s much uncertainty as to when next season will start, but when competition does resume there’s room for optimism in regards to OU’s 2021 outlook. 

Among the many reasons for hope, the foremost is the presence of OU head coach K.J. Kindler.

Following the retirement of UCLA coach Valorie Kondos Field at the end of the 2019 season, Kindler became the only active coach in the NCAA with a national championship under her belt.

And she has four.

Heralded by Conner and others as the “gold standard” of coaches in NCAA gymnastics, Kindler runs a tight operation in Norman with the help of assistants Lou Ball and Tom Haley among others. She instills discipline in her athletes, demanding their best on every event during practice and in competition.

Known as a master choreographer and dynamic leader, Kindler is the complete package when it comes to championship instruction. If anyone can navigate a team through the disappointment of a championship lost not to a better opponent, but a historic pandemic, it’s her.

“My bets are on her every year and it's not because I went to OU,” said former Sooner standout and current Soonervision color commentator Kelly Garrison-Funderburk. “It’s because she's the best of the best of college coaches in gymnastics, period. She absolutely is.”

Assuming that Garrison-Funderburk’s right, Kindler will be looking at multiple avenues to lead the Sooners back to nationals again.

Her first — and perhaps biggest — challenge will be accounting for the departure of Nichols.

Oklahoma’s star senior captivated collegiate gymnastics the past four years with a remarkable life story of courage along with an OU program record 22 perfect 10’s and two NCAA individual all-around titles among countless other accomplishments.

Replacing her will be a tall task but someone has to fill the seven routines in the lineup left behind by her and Degouveia. Fortunately, the next wave of OU stars is already in the locker room.

When pondering next year’s roster, Garrison-Funderburk pointed right to rising senior Anastasia Webb as the next projected Sooner superstar. An all-around stalwart for OU, Webb has competed in every meet in her entire career, and was the nation’s second best vaulter behind Nichols in 2020 while earning first team All-American honors on vault and the all-around.

“She’s a super talented athlete,” Kindler said of Webb earlier in the season while likening her importance to the squad to Nichols. “You’ve seen her confidence grow more and more every year.”

Additionally, Garrison-Funderburk and Conner had high praise for rising junior Olivia Trautman and rising sophomore Ragan Smith. 

Trautman was a first team All-American on floor as a freshman and a second teamer on vault. While she missed part of her sophomore season to injury, she was the only Sooner not named Nichols to record a perfect 10 after her return.

“She is so explosive and has such great potential,” Conner said, “And I could see her working her way into the all-around where she could be a real star.”

Meanwhile, Smith is a former olympic alternate who was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and was a first team All-American on bars and a second teamer on beam.

“Ragan Smith is on the cusp,” Garrison-Funderburk said. “She made leaps and bounds of improvement from when she got to campus.”

As will the freshman in Kindler’s 2021 recruiting class, six incoming gymnasts who will comprise over 30 percent of her roster in the coming season.

Outside of elite talent Audrey Davis, the presumed headliner of the class, Garrison-Funderburk said she doesn’t know much about the group, but she does know Kindler’s judgment in recruiting reigns supreme.

Furthermore, Garrison-Funderburk said Kindler doesn’t have to have all the nation’s top-ranked talent to build a winner. She’s able to bring out the best in the athletes she has.

“That's kind of the one thing that people respect and probably some coaches probably hate about her is, she can get the most out of an athlete,” Garrison-Funderburk said, “And so she can take that team that may not be the most talented and yet still win national championships with that team.”

But even as Kindler builds for the future, it’s probably safe to say there won’t be another Nichols, who is regarded by some as one of OU’s greatest athletes regardless of sport.

Luckily, the real “Swaggy Maggie” won’t be far off.

While pursuing her master’s degree in journalism next spring, she’ll be in the gym as a graduate assistant.

“KJ, Tom, and Lou are the best coaches in the country, I mean I’m not being biased … I truly believe they’re the best coaches all around,” Nichols said, “And so being able to learn from them and be taught the ropes by them, I’m just very excited to have that experience and to learn the behind the scenes of everything that goes on.”

She’s not the only one who’s elated. Garrison-Funderburk sees Nichols as an elite asset, calling her a “game changer” in her new position and anticipates she will provide confidence and motivation while also serving as a great example to learn from.

“I mean that’s kind of a pretty big expectation, like if you walk in as a freshman or whoever and Maggie Nichols is your coach, you’d be like ‘Dude, I’m gonna do whatever it takes,’” Garrison-Funderburk said. “You want to impress them, and you want to learn from them, so I’d be like ‘Can you watch this? Can you watch me do this? Can you watch this one?’ That would be me if I was on the team, because I would want to just squeeze out as much knowledge as I could from them.”

Nichols will be able to relate to everyone in the room easily and her prowess in practice should help fine-tune the team’s skills. 

And as Kindler and her staff aided by Coach Nichols work to reload another gymnastics juggernaut, people are going to watch.

At 11 a.m. CT on Saturday, ESPN’s ‘Best of 2020 Gymnastics’ takeover began, as a marathon of eight meets from 2020  — two featuring the Sooners — rolled onto ESPNU to provide 12 straight hours of gymnastics coverage.

While it’s not the NCAA championship, which was set to be on ABC for the first time, it’s another example of how collegiate gymnastics has grown in recent years.

“The ratings are fantastic, the shows are great and it's terrific competition,” Conner said. “So over the last several years we went from taped, delayed broadcasts in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon to primetime on ABC television, which is a testament to how great the quality of the competition is, and what they've done with college gymnastics.”

To a degree, OU’s success is a part of that. With four titles in the past decade — more than any other program — Oklahoma borders on the definition of a dynasty, and Conner doesn’t see that ending in the near future.

“I guarantee you OU will be a contender next year as well,” Conner said. “It's just how they're wired.

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Mason Young is a journalism sophomore and a senior news reporter for The Daily.

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