A Long Way, Baby

By Norman Boucher / January / February 2008
January 29th, 2008

As I write this, the Brown gymnastics team has competed in only one match this season but finished it in first place, just ahead of MIT and Rhode Island College. Among other things, this is a tribute to head coach Sara Carver-Milne, whose recruits in recent years have made up one of Brown’s best, and least known, sports stories. Posting the top two overall scores in this season’s first match, for example, were two Brown freshmen, Vicki Zanelli and Vida Rivera, and Carver-Milne’s top recruit last year is this issue’s cover subject, Alicia Sacramone ’10.

It’s remarkable that the team has started the year so strongly without Sacramone, whose impact last year was enormous. Her accomplishments, as described in our story (page 20), are world class. She is captain of the U.S. team, which she led to a first-place finish in the World Championships in Germany last September. She was the last athlete to compete in the floor excercises, the competition’s final event. Her performance nudged the team ahead of China. Over the last few years Sacramone has been a national and world champion in floor exercises and on the vault. She is the kind of athlete that is rare at any school and even rarer at a place like Brown, which has not traditionally been known as a gymnastics powerhouse.

We’ve come a long way since 1991, when the University withdrew funding from women’s gymnastics, along with three other teams, as a way of saving money. The following year a group of student athletes sued under Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in higher education, and the case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against Brown. The University resumed funding women’s gymnastics in 1997, and Sacramone joined the team nine years later.

I readily admit a bias on this subject. My daughter is a high school gymnast, which has given me a front-row view of how the sport is often treated in athletic programs. At our local high school, this year’s freshmen competed in hand-me-down leotards. Warm-up pants finally arrived around midseason. At pep rallies, the gymnasts are the last to be recognized. Far from demoralizing the athletes, however, this attitude seems to motivate them and bring them closer together. Our team is one of the best in the region.

My daughter and I got to see Sacramone compete for Brown last year. Watching her perform her floor routine, we were awestruck by her ability. But I was equally impressed with her demeanor on the sidelines. Although she was by far the best athlete in the building, she was as engaged watching and cheering on her teammates as she was leaping and somersaulting across the floor. After the meet was over, she came into the stands and sat and talked with young girls who were just starting out with gymnastics. The atmosphere was not that different from our local high school meets.

If Sacramone makes the U.S. Olympic team this summer, as she is likely to do, you will see her in Beijing in August. As you watch the coverage of women’s gymnastics, remember the young woman described in our article. Remember, too, the recent history of the Brown gymnastics team and take pride that the school finally got it right.

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January / February 2008