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John Roethlisberger spent years at the pinnacle of elite men’s gymnastics, competing in three Olympics and six world championships. When he reflects on the whole of his athletic career, though, the former Gophers standout says he found greater fulfillment during his days in maroon and gold.

“I’ve told people many times, if I had to choose one over the other, I would choose my college experience,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s why this is so devastating.”

NCAA men’s gymnastics has been contracting for decades, a trend that accelerated sharply with the elimination of three more programs in the past month. The Gophers, Iowa and William & Mary all announced they would drop the sport at the end of the upcoming season. That slashes the number of NCAA programs to 12, with more cuts possible as schools deal with financial deficits caused by COVID-19.

Gophers coach Mike Burns said he will not stop fighting to save his sport, and others are lining up to help. The College Gymnastics Association, led by Burns, launched a fundraising campaign last week. Coaches are seeking ways to reduce their programs’ expenses, including asking the NCAA to allow “virtual meets” in which each team competes in its own gym.

USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) are getting involved, too. On the men’s side of the sport, college teams are the primary development ground for the Olympics and other international competitions.

“The urgency level is as high as it could get,” said Jason Woodnick, vice president of the men’s program at USA Gymnastics. “[College athletes] have been the core of our national team for years. Everybody is working to figure out what they can do.”

If the sport is to survive, Burns said, its advocates must be willing to evolve and think creatively. A new model already has begun to take shape. GymACT — the Gymnastics Association of College Teams — is a group of self-funded teams loosely affiliated with colleges. While they are not NCAA programs, they compete at the same high level under the same rules.

The U’s Board of Regents still must approve the elimination of men’s gymnastics, men’s track and field, and men’s tennis. While Burns said the Gophers could find a way to exist outside the NCAA, he isn’t willing to entertain that idea yet.

“Is GymACT viable? Absolutely,” he said. “Might that be what we have to do? It might. But we’re going to keep fighting to get reinstated. It’s in the hands of the regents now, and that’s where our efforts are going.”

Olympic ramifications

The erosion of college men’s gymnastics started in the 1980s. From 1981-82 to 2002-03, the number of programs plummeted from 79 to 20 — a loss of 59 teams in just 21 years.

Roethlisberger, who won three NCAA all-around titles in the early 1990s, now owns and operates a gymnastics camp in Tennessee. He said former U gymnasts want to work with the school to solve financial and Title IX issues that contributed to the sport’s elimination. An Olympian in 1992, 1996 and 2000, he also urged USA Gymnastics and the USOPC to do more to save college men’s programs.

“It should be a huge concern,” Roethlisberger said. “This is going to hurt a U.S. men’s program that has made massive strides in the last two decades.”

Woodnick said there is no quick fix, but USA Gymnastics and USOPC are discussing ways to help. Ideas include providing short-term funding for travel or operational costs, or scholarships and financial support for teams outside the NCAA structure.

In addition, the two organizations are asking to be “involved in the conversation” as universities consider the future of Olympic sports, to help address problems before programs are eliminated.

According to Burns, college coaches have had group discussions about how to reduce expenses in the hope of staving off more cuts.

They are pushing the NCAA to allow virtual meets beginning this season, and Burns is “relatively optimistic” an emergency legislative waiver could be passed soon. Burns said eliminating travel would save the Gophers $68,000.

New way forward?

Gophers senior Shane Wiskus believes the future lies with GymACT, which was founded in 2018 by coaches at schools whose NCAA programs had been cut. Its seven self-funded teams — including Arizona State, Temple and Washington — compete at an NCAA level, often against NCAA programs, and have full-time coaches.

“The optimist in me says GymACT is going to take over, and the gymnastics community will come together and maintain as many college programs as they can,” said Wiskus, the 2019 NCAA champion in parallel bars and a member of the U.S. national team. “Maybe one day we can have as competitive of a field as we do now, and still give opportunities for kids to represent their school, keep training and be part of a team.”

Woodnick is optimistic, too, but he is also a realist. While USA Gymnastics is “fighting tooth and nail” to preserve NCAA programs, he said it must be prepared for a future without them.

Roethlisberger would rather not think about that. His summer camps are crowded with boys who want to compete in college, and he said it’s heartbreaking to know their opportunities will shrink further if the Gophers cease operations after next spring’s NCAA championships at Maturi Pavilion.

“Cutting sports has been the answer for a long, long time,” he said. “My hope is these universities will take a step back and realize these opportunities are really important.”