A different kind of gymnastics

Samantha Peszek, a 2008 Olympian and current UCLA gymnast, has competed under both the college and elite rules. Cal Sport Media/AP Images

At first glance, college gymnastics might look just like the Olympic version of the sport. The equipment is the same, as are many of the skills.

But watch an entire meet and you'll realize that while the two may be sisters, they're certainly not twins.

"It's like comparing apples to oranges," says Samantha Peszek, a redshirt junior at UCLA who will be competing in the NCAA championships, which begin Friday night in Birmingham, Ala. A 2008 Olympian, she's had more experience than most at competing in both versions of the sport.

How is college gymnastics different? Here are five major ways:

1. In the NCAA, the perfect 10.0 lives on

Since 2005, elite gymnasts have been receiving scores like 14.433 and 15.233. Confusing? Yes. (For the record, there's one score for difficulty and another for execution. The two are added together to get a final score.)

But women's NCAA gymnastics still uses the "perfect 10" scoring system, in which the top mark is a 10.0. As long as a gymnast meets certain minimum requirements, her routine will start from 10.0 and the judges will mark down from there.

When a college gymnast scores a 9.95, everyone knows it was a great routine -- not just the athletes and judges. And there's added excitement when a performance is deemed worthy of a perfect mark, a rare occurrence but one that does happen.

2. There's no room for error, at all

The drawback to the 10.0 system is that gymnasts tend to receive similar scores for hit routines. As a result, very small margins often determine championship outcomes. (Last year, Florida won the NCAA team title over Oklahoma by a whopping two-tenths of a point).

So in college gymnastics, there is more pressure on the athletes to do everything perfectly.

"It is very nerve-wracking," says Florida sophomore Bridget Sloan, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist who is now the reigning NCAA all-around champion. "One toe point can be the difference between winning the championship and getting second place."

She's not exaggerating: Flexed feet can incur a deduction of 0.2, the margin that Florida won by last year. Stuck landings and good form are absolutely crucial to winning a competition.

3. But there is room for expression

A lack of excessive difficulty doesn't mean there's no originality: NCAA routines, particularly floor routines, are a world apart from what you see in elite gymnastics. While elite routines tend to be more restrained, NCAA gymnasts moonwalk on the balance beam and let loose in their dances on floor.

To find an example, look no further than the floor exercise of LSU junior Lloimincia Hall, which has gone viral online during the past few weeks. The tumbling is excellent, but it's Hall's sassy, unapologetic strut, infectious smile and interesting choreography that make this routine memorable. (Watch the routine, which has been viewed more than 700,000 times on YouTube, here.)

The lower difficulty level means fewer skills to jam into a routine, leaving more room for choreography. It also has another unintended effect on the athletes. As UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field explains, college gymnasts are "competing routines with skills they've competed for many, many years, so they're comfortable with them. They're able to relax more and really focus on the performance."

4. There's less training time and more competition

The NCAA caps the number of hours a team can train at 20 per week; elite gymnasts often spend as many as 40 hours per week in the gym preparing for an Olympic run. Although fewer hours can be devoted to their training, college gymnasts compete a lot more: about 15 meets from January to April, usually without a weekend off from competition.

So the challenge in college gymnastics is to keep the athletes healthy throughout the season, while also maintaining near-perfect performances for so many different meets. Says Peszek: "You have to pay a lot more attention to keeping your body in shape. I thought coming to college it was going to be easy, and it wasn't the case at all. It was just different gymnastics."

5. It's truly a team effort

"It's all about the team" might be the most quoted sentence in NCAA gymnastics, but it's true. Elite gymnastics is heavily focused on the individual, and making an Olympic team can be a rather lonely adventure.

That all goes out the window in college, to the relief of many gymnasts. The overall team total is most important, with an NCAA team title the ultimate victory. While the pressure is intense, the athletes have a dozen other teammates to look to for support, and for fun.

"In elite, there's not a whole lot of laughing," Sloan observes. "In college, you put on a show."

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