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Utah gymnastics: Coaches banking on young(er) talent

Published March 28, 2014 8:02 pm

College programs are courting 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds to get an edge.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On a recent unofficial recruiting visit to Utah's gymnastics practice facility, Milan Marlowe Clausi saw where the Utes train, met the team and learned what daily life is like for a Utah gymnast. It was an experience many young talented gymnasts would love to have.

But even better than the memories was the would-be souvenir she received. At just 13 years old, Marlowe Clausi was offered a scholarship to Utah.

The Utes, one of the top gymnastics programs in the country year in and year out, don't just offer anyone scholarships, but when you have the daughter of one of the sport's most successful athletes on campus, there is no time to waste, lest another school swoops in and woos her away.

Already Marlowe Clausi, the daughter of former Utah gymnast and Olympian Melissa Marlowe, has since received interest from UCLA, Florida, Auburn and other schools.

All the attention stuns even her mother, who grew up in the spotlight herself as an elite athlete.

"It's crazy, it's wonderful, but it's so far away it just seems ridiculous," Marlowe said of her daughter's possible collegiate experience. "But it's real."

Marlowe isn't the only one astounded and slightly disturbed by the early invitation.

Early college offers in gymnastics are becoming the norm, just as in other sports such as football and basketball. Stories of some young dunking superstar or the child of a sporting legend receiving a college offer before he or she knows what acne is are sprinkled throughout the sports world.

Just this week LSU football coach Les Miles explained his reasoning for offering a scholarship to a 14-year-old quarterback — the nephew of former BYU QB Ty Detmer. Miles says he knows talent when he sees it, so why wait?

"Those kind of guys, sometimes they can be young players," he told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "We've not shied away from them."

Troubling trend

It would stand to reason that gymnastics would follow suit, particularly since there is a limited number of elite athletes available. Unlike other sports, gymnasts heading into college are in the twilight of their careers. Some are too mentally burned out to continue while others' bodies are wrecked, all of which makes an Olympic-caliber gymnast who competes at the collegiate level more the rarity than the norm.

So everyone goes after the young talent, hoping to land "the one."

However, even those involved in the trend acknowledge they don't like it.

"It is a huge concern," Utah coach Greg Marsden said. "It opens up the door for more problems down the road. People change and situations change, so someone you thought might be a good fit when they were in the eighth grade may not be a good fit when they are a senior, but you can't wait, either, because everyone else is doing it. You have to play the game."

The Utes play the game very well. Marsden can't comment specifically on any recruits, per NCAA rules, but said the Utes are working on their 2018 class. Their other classes are already filled.

"No matter how you feel about it, the genie is out of the bottle," Marsden said. "Every year recruiting has gotten earlier and earlier, and there isn't much we can do about it."

Others aren't so quick to join the fray. SUU coach Scott Bauman has offered a few young gymnasts, but decided sitting in gyms watching 8- and 9-year-olds isn't for him.

"It's recruit-o-philia," he joked. "You feel like you are going to a gym to look at someone's little sister. We aren't curing cancer here, it's gymnastics; we don't have to be that cut-throat to make the school better, and I don't want to be a part of that."

Bauman says his program benefits the most from what he calls solid Level 10s — gymnasts who are good, but just below the elite level. There are many more Level 10s than elites, allowing Bauman to have more choices in recruiting than the top colleges, which covet the Olympic-caliber athletes.

Assessing talent difficult

Meanwhile, coaches from the premier programs head to gyms throughout the country with hopes of finding the talent they'll need to win conference and national championships, even if the gymnasts might not be on campus for years to come.

"It's not fair; I don't like it," said UCLA coach Valorie Kondos-Field. "It's unfair to everyone. It's hard to assess talent at such a young age."

In gymnastics, judging young talent is even trickier than other sports because gymnasts can change so much once they hit puberty. A gymnast who had the perfect form and body for gymnasts before puberty might struggle once she is past it, Kondos-Field said.

"Other sports, they usually only get better," Kondos-Field said. "Gymnasts, they can be a totally different person. It's a guessing game."

It's a guessing game for gymnasts too. Utah junior Georgia Dabritz said asking gymnasts to decide earlier and earlier adds more pressure to an already notoriously demanding sport.

"I didn't commit until my sophomore year, but most of us have no idea if we want to go to college or what we want to do when we are younger," she said. "The hardest part of recruiting is figuring out what you want to do in the future and a lot of girls change their mind. There are a lot of girls too who just don't want to do gymnastics anymore, or they get hurt."

Not surprisingly, verbal agreements in collegiate gymnastics are becoming as flimsy as they are in other sports.

"Every year there are more and more," Kondos-Field said. "I can think of six from last year alone. It's spreading like wildfire."

Is there a solution?

The coaches and athletes involved are pessimistic anything can be done.

Kondos-Field would like to see a rule instituted that athletes couldn't make any unofficial visits until their junior year in high school, which is when schools are allowed to start contacting athletes.

As it stands now, athletes regardless of age can make unlimited unofficial visits as long as they contact schools first.

But putting such a limit on visits is unlikely to change the nature of recruiting. There will still be contact through camps and other social events. Marsden points out that it isn't just the coaches who are pushing for earlier and earlier commitments, but eager parents too.

"I had a request for an unofficial visit in the fifth grade," he said. "It has gotten so competitive, with a limited amount of scholarships and a limited amount of premier athletes, I don't know how you stop it."

Marlowe, whose own recruiting was low-key, since she visited only Stanford before heading to Utah, is doing her best to protect her daughter from added pressure. Marlowe says all the attention as flattering, with schools like UCLA, Florida and other big programs showing interest.

Marlowe says she is remaining neutral, other than pointing out to her daughter that the competition experience at Utah is unique because of the program's large following.

"She's spoiled because she has never seen anything else,' Marlowe said.

Perhaps, by the time she is a freshman — that will be 2018 — she'll know.

lwodraska@sltrib.com Recruiting rule overview

College women's gymnastics coaches can't contact prospective athletes off-campus or by phone until after July 15 following her junior year in high school.

Coaches may begin emailing or sending written correspondence to prospects on Sept. 1 at the start of the high school junior year.

> Read more about the recruiting overview on Page D6.

Young athletes can contact colleges in which they are interested. If such contact is made, coaches are allowed to arrange unofficial visits and discuss recruiting possibilities.

Unofficial visits to campus are funded entirely by the prospective student-athlete and visits must remain on campus.

Athletes are allowed to schedule an unlimited amount of unofficial visits.

Camp brochures and materials can be provided to prospective student-athletes. —

NCAA Gymnastics Regionals

P Saturday, April 5, 3 p.m.

• At Little Rock, Ark.

Field • No. 5 Utah, No. 8 UCLA, No. 17 Arkansas, No. 24 Arizona State, Utah State and UC Davis. Top two advance to the NCAA championships.