Seven NCAA gymnasts to watch this season
The NCAA gymnastics season starts today, with some of the most entertaining and exciting routines being done in the sport. The rules for collegiate gymnasts are different than the ones for Simone Biles and other elite gymnasts on the Olympic stage. In college, the perfect 10 is still the top score, so NCAA competitions can come down to razor-thin margins -- and the smallest details, such as stuck landings, can actually mean the difference between winning and losing a meet.
Oklahoma enters the season ranked first in the preseason National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women poll, and with three out of the past four team titles, this vote of confidence comes as no surprise. The Sooners continue to be the team to beat -- though any of the top six teams (Florida, LSU, Alabama, Utah and UCLA, at No. 2-6, respectively) could challenge for the championship in April.
We picked out seven gymnasts -- you'll recognize many of them -- who are performing routines you've got to see:
Maggie Nichols, Oklahoma
Nichols, now a sophomore, was nothing short of sensational in her freshman season, winning 45 event titles and scoring seven perfect 10s. The former elite gymnast, who was in the hunt for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team before a knee injury derailed her, brings many of those high-difficulty skills over to college gymnastics. Nichols is supremely talented on all four events, but bars is perhaps her most dynamic routine -- she earned a share of the NCAA title on the event last season.
Alex McMurtry, Florida
Last season's NCAA all-around champion throws one of the highest triple fulls ever performed on floor exercise -- made even more impressive because chronic back problems prevent her from training the event full-time. The Florida senior also competes the most difficult vault being done in college gymnastics, a double-twisting Yurchenko. As a junior, McMurtry won the Honda Award, the highest honor given in collegiate gymnastics, and was named the SEC gymnast of the year. All signs point to equal levels of success this season.
Christine Peng-Peng Lee, UCLA
Lee is back for an unlikely sixth year after knee injuries forced her to sit out both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. The NCAA granted her an additional year of eligibility, and so the six-time All-American will be competing one more season -- and doing some of the most interesting gymnastics seen today. Lee could compete easier skills and still earn big scores but she chooses not to, and her bar routine in particular would likely be competitive on the Olympic stage.
Myia Hambrick, LSU
Hambrick, a senior, has steadily improved every season of her NCAA career -- no small feat for collegiate gymnasts who are often battling lingering injuries from so many years in the sport. She capped off her junior season with All-American honors on beam, floor and in the all-around at NCAAs, and is a threat to win any (or all) of those events at any meet. Her high-energy floor set scored above 9.9 eight times last season, and is tons of fun to watch. Hambrick is hoping to help LSU, the runner-up at the past two national championships, finally win its first title.
Kyla Ross, UCLA
After a phenomenal freshman season that concluded with NCAA event titles on both bars and beam, Olympic gold medalist Ross is poised to contribute even more as a sophomore. She is hoping to break into the floor lineup this season, and could be a key all-arounder for the Bruins if so. With classmate and fellow Olympian Madison Kocian sidelined until at least midseason with a shoulder injury, UCLA will depend on Ross' stable routines even more this season.
MyKayla Skinner, Utah
Skinner also excelled in her freshman season, performing an incredible 56 routines without a single fall and tying for the NCAA floor title. One of the 2016 Olympic alternates for Team USA, Skinner will continue to lead the country on floor and vault especially, where she has deceptive power -- and performs skills, such as a tucked double-double mount, that no one else does.
Bailie Key, Alabama
Key, one of the most highly sought-after recruits in the nation, was the 2013 U.S. junior national champion and looked like a strong contender for the 2016 Olympic team until a back injury slowed her down. As a freshman, she's expected to impact the bar and beam lineups for Alabama, and will join veterans Kiana Winston, Nickie Guerrero and Maddie Desch in the Crimson Tide's bid to win the national title that has eluded the team since back-to-back championships in 2011 and 2012.