The OU women’s gymnastics team starts its season at 1:45 p.m. CT Sunday, Jan. 10 in Norman against No. 21 Arizona State.
The Sooners were primed to make a national title run in 2020, as OU was ranked No. 1 in the country heading into a postseason that never happened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Head coach K.J. Kindler held a press conference Thursday to discuss the 2021 season. Oklahoma already sits close to the top of the sport again, after coming in at No. 2 in the Women's Collegiate Gymnastics Association Preseason Coaches Poll released Dec. 17.
Here are five things to know before the season begins:
Mental Health and Offseason Adjustments
Kindler spoke bluntly about how COVID-19 has affected the team’s mental health. The 2020 season finished abruptly when cancellations swept across the NCAA, stopping winter sports’ postseasons before they had a chance to begin.
“This is the biggest wrench that’s ever been thrown in their career, and in mine as well,” Kindler said. “We had to learn how to navigate the time off, mentally first before physically.”
“One of the biggest things that we are tackling is that mental component, and I'm not gonna sugarcoat it, it has been difficult, and it's been hard on them. And no matter what smiles you see out on their arena floor, there were thousands of tears that went before that.”
COVID-19 restrictions made the offseason one like no other, as teams weren’t able to have athletes on campus, so they had to train at club gyms instead. Meanwhile, some gymnasts, like star senior Anastasia Webb, had to make the best out of practice-related complications.
“I couldn't really train at my home gym in Illinois, so I came back to Oklahoma, and I trained at a club gym (in Oklahoma City) called Dynamo Gymnastics, and I was very fortunate and very thankful to work out there,” Webb said. “I even had a couple of my teammates there with me, including (senior Karrie Thomas), and that was just really great motivation, because we looked at one another, we cheered one another on, and kept pushing each other, even at a club gym. So it was a different perspective, and we had fun and we worked hard together.”
Pac-12 to Norman
Two Pac-12 teams will be making trips to Norman early in January. Preseason No. 21 Arizona State will visit Oklahoma to open the season after the Sooners traveled to Tempe last year. In addition, there will be a familiar face to some on the Oklahoma side on the ASU coaching staff.
New Arizona State assistant coach Kristin White will return to Norman in maroon and gold for the first time. White, a 2010 Oklahoma graduate, joined the Sun Devil staff in May after spending the previous two years at Iowa State.
For the first time in Kindler’s 15-year career as head coach, No. 4 Utah will come to Norman for a dual one week after OU’s opener. The Red Rocks have the highest preseason ranking of any Sooner opponent, and should be one of the best opponents OU faces all season.
“We will return (to Utah) next year,” Kindler said. “I’m very excited about that agreement moving forward.”
New Faces and Expanded Roles
With Maggie Nichols and Jade Degouveia having finished their careers in 2020, Oklahoma will have seven slots to fill in its rotation. Additionally, junior star Olivia Trautman will miss the “first half” of the season due to an undisclosed injury.
Despite losing perhaps the greatest OU athlete ever in Nichols — now with the team as a graduate assistant coach — the Sooners have a bright season ahead of them. Kindler said Webb and Thomas will both step into expanded roles in 2021.
But it isn’t just the upperclassmen that will take on bigger responsibilities. Kindler has eight freshmen gymnasts on the roster and expects them — specifically Katherine LeVasseur and Audrey Davis — to step into some of those slots immediately. Kindler knows, though, that they won’t walk out and score perfect 10s right away.
“They are going to have to get meets and experience under their belt,” Kindler said, “They're going to have to learn how to adjust to the butterflies and the excitement of competition, which in college is different than what they've done in the past … you have to learn how to handle it.”
NCAA Rule Changes
With COVID-19 came NCAA rule changes to every sport, and gymnastics was no exception. The two largest changes are the meet cancellation policy and the postseason qualification policy. In an effort to hold as many competitions as safely as possible, if both teams have at least five gymnasts for every exercise, the meet will not be canceled.
For postseason qualification, six meets were previously required, whereas only four meets will be required in 2021. The Sooners have twelve meets on the schedule this winter.
“With a 12-meet schedule, we've really secured ourselves in a great position,” Kindler said, “even if meets do get canceled, to have a great opportunity to have a good qualifying score.”
Throughout Thursday’s press conference, a deep sense of gratitude was evident from Kindler and the gymnasts. They all spoke about the perspective change the pandemic provided, making them thankful for an opportunity to compete again.
“I realized how special it is to walk out at the (Lloyd Noble Center) every day,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be special because we get to do what we love every day.”
“I’m incredibly grateful for every moment that we have going out and being able to compete,” said senior Carly Woodard. “I think that going into the national championship this year we will be a lot more grateful, and just thankful that we are hopefully in that position, and that we get to compete.”
Despite a 2020 season that didn’t finish the way they’d hoped, and though uncertainty about 2021 still remains, the Sooners are looking to finish business this season with another national title.
“Most importantly, our team is so pumped to actually get out there and do what they've been training to do with question marks in their head all preseason,” Kindler said. “You definitely have to take each day as a fresh day and move forward from there. The preparation has been different. It's unique, but we are ready.”
This article was updated at 7 p.m. Jan. 17 to reflect Utah's correct mascot name.