By Elizabeth Grimsley
Four years ago, Elizabeth Pfeiler was just finishing her freshman year of high school. She had retired from gymnastics a couple of months before and was “getting experience points in life” such as performing in school plays and going to prom.
It’s four years later and Pfeiler has not only come out of retirement but has reached the highest Junior Olympic level and is working toward earning a spot on a collegiate gymnastics team. She wasn’t even thinking about what classes she might want to take before, and she surely wasn’t thinking about what college she wanted to attend.
“I didn’t know anything freshman year [of high school],” Pfeiler said. “That’s the transitioning point, and you don’t need to worry about that. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. It definitely would have been really bad to commit anywhere that young.”
Young gymnasts are verbally committing to colleges earlier and earlier with some saving their spot as early as ninth grade. Pfeiler is an exception. Because she is a late bloomer in the recruiting process, she is having a harder time finding a scholarship offer now that she is a senior. This trend is not just making it harder for “average” gymnasts to make it onto a college team but also raising the quality of gymnastics in the NCAA.
“The genie is out of the bottle and I don’t see it going back,” Washington head coach Joanne Bowers said in an email. “If there are no rules against early recruiting, we are all doing it.”
Already, 63 gymnasts a part of the class of 2016 have verbally committed to a collegiate gymnastics program, according to the College Gym Fans recruiting database. Two of those commits are twin sisters Anna and Grace Glenn who verbally committed to UCLA Dec. 29, 2012 when they were just 14 years old.
While Pfeiler was learning how to drive her mom’s navy station wagon, the Glenn sisters were visiting Stanford, Georgia, Penn State and UCLA, trying to decide where they wanted to attend school in four years time.
“We weren’t going to think about it then,” Grace Glenn said. “Colleges had already started coming to the gym and looking at us, and we started getting mail and all that kind of stuff so that made us think about it more early on.”
Because there are no rules against recruiting gymnasts early, coaches aren’t going to miss out on a potential recruit just to prove a point.
“I really feel like it’s happening because we are allowed to do it,” Bowers said in an email. “It would be wonderful to wait until their senior year, do the official visits and then all decide.”
Recruiting hasn’t always been this way. Back in the early 2000s, YouTube didn’t exist, making it harder for both coaches to look into prospective recruits as well as college hopefuls, such as former Rutgers gymnast and current club coach Lorena Johnson, to get their names out there.
“I had to make and send out 15 videotapes to all the schools I was really interested in,” Johnson said. “It’s much easier now because [college coaches] can just look online and see any kid they want to see. As soon as these kids put stuff out there, coaches are able to see it.”
While it’s now the norm to start talking to gymnasts when they’re freshmen in high school, Bowers doesn’t like the trend. But she does feel if she doesn’t recruit the younger girls, they will soon be unavailable.
Just a few weeks ago, Bowers and her staff extended a spot to their first high school freshman. The girl already had six offers.
“I really didn’t want to do it but didn’t want her to leave campus without knowing we want her, too,” Bowers said in an email. “I do feel pressure to show the young recruits our interest and let them know that UW is an option for them so that we don’t lose out on them by waiting. I really do not like it, but we have to do it because we may lose out if we don’t show interest.”
It’s not just the coaches that are starting sooner. Gymnasts are eager to get recruited sooner as well.
“We had seen that girls had already started committing earlier and earlier,” Grace Glenn said. “We had to think if we really wanted a spot on a great team, we had to act soon before they were all taken.”
The sisters also felt that starting sooner would create more opportunities in the long run.
“We thought it would just be better to start earlier than later because it would make our options better and give us better chances,” Anna Glenn said.
The fewer number of available spots could be attributed to the fact that more and more Elite — or Olympic level — gymnasts are deciding to continue their careers in college rather than retire or turn pro.
“Now that there’s more kids left in the pool of candidates, it’s almost a race to snag one of those scholarship spots,” former Wisconsin-Whitewater gymnast Emily Gillis said. “Therefore, the earlier you can commit, the better. If they haven’t gone pro, NCAA gymnastics is such an amazing outlet to continue their love of the sport.”
The average age of the 1996 United State Olympic team was 17.6 years old. In 2012, the average age of the U.S. team was 16.4. This means these gymnasts’ bodies have taken fewer years of pounding and stress, leaving the gymnasts with more years left in them.
Typically, collegiate gymnastics’ skill level is a step below that of Elite, too, making it easier for those Olympians or other world-class athletes to continue their careers in college where the sport is less stressful and more fun.
“It can be less wear and tear, and the focus is on being perfect as opposed to how many skills you can do,” Georgia head coach Danna Durante said. “They spend their entire careers focusing on themselves. It’s exciting for so many of them and rewarding for so many of them to participate in a team sport.”
Beijing Olympian Bridget Sloan is a current member of the Florida gymnastics team and her teammate Samantha Peszek competes for UCLA. Since more of the country’s top gymnasts are choosing not to retire after their Elite careers are over, coaches have to fight for those athletes or risk losing them to a rival team.
Sometimes these gymnasts wait to commit to a school until they find out if they make the World Championship or Olympic team. This leaves teams struggling to decide whether or not they should hold on to a scholarship in the hopes of that athlete taking it later on, or giving the spot to someone else and searching for another option when the time comes.
“They find scholarships,” Johnson said. “They say they don’t have anything left, but they find them. Even for [Junior Olympic] girls, you can make it to nationals and there will still be people recruiting.”
Now days, gymnasts can’t just have the minimum requirements in their routines and expected to be recruited.
“You’ve got to have at least something a little bit special,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to have more. Now it’s almost like if you want to go to a good school, you have to have been an Elite. That wasn’t the case once upon a time.”
For the late-bloomers like Pfeiler, it’s more about finding a team that will take you over anything else. The decision between walking-on to a better gymnastics school and taking a scholarship at a lesser one is something that weighs on Pfeiler’s mind.
But unlike a freshman in high school, she’s aware of the fact that gymnastics isn’t the only thing that matters anymore. Money, a career and life after the sport are important to consider as well.
“I don’t want to go to a school I don’t want to go to just because they’re going to give me a scholarship,” Pfeiler said. “Then again, I don’t want to go to a school I really want to go to that’s $100,000 because that’s insane.”
The balance is something Pfeiler deals with just like she does with a routine on beam. High school graduation is looming and decisions need to be made. Walk-on offers from Penn State and George Washington are available for the taking. But if it doesn’t work out, she’s ready to accept the fact and move on.
Click here to view a timeline illustrating Pfeiler and the Glenn Sisters’ recruiting process and how they differ. You can click on each event’s image to view a description and use the plus and minus buttons on the left side to zoom in and out. Scroll through the timeline by using the bar at the bottom.