At first, Missouri gymnastics coach Rob Drass sounds like every other coach in college sports when addressing the relationship between academics and athletics.
“Academics is why you’re going to college,” Drass said. “We talk about academics being a priority here, and it comes first.”
But look at the academic record for the gymnastics team and it quickly becomes apparent that for the Tigers’ coaches and gymnasts, saying academics comes before athletics is more than just feel-good talk.
Missouri gymnasts make up six of the 15-member Academic All Big 12 Conference Team and one member is on the six-athlete second team, leading the conference for the second straight year.
For the student-athletes to qualify for the honor, they must maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA from the past two semesters and have participated in at least 60 percent of the team’s competitions. Freshmen and transfer students aren’t eligible in their first academic year.
The Tigers’ gymnasts on the first team are seniors Ali Gilmore and Amanda Pezzullo, juniors Julie Abaray, Nikki Bowman and Katie Kluga and sophomore Alicia Hatcher. Sophomore Adrianne Perry made the second team.
Drass said that the key to achieving academic success starts in the recruiting process, where the coaches look for athletes that share the team’s priorities of academics first and athletics second.
“There’s many athletes that we didn’t sign because either their test scores or their academic grades or something went wrong there,” Drass said. “Even if it’s the best kid in the country, and I’m looking at them I tell them, ‘If these aren’t your priorities, tell me no. I don’t care why you tell me no. But this is what we’re about, and if you want to do that, that’s great.’”
Once the athletes arrive at Missouri, usually the summer before their freshman year, Drass encourages them to take a few summer courses so they can get acclimated to college academics.
Drass requires gymnasts with semester GPAs under a certain number to attend study hall. Gymnasts with GPAs from 2.8 to 3.2 have four hours of study hall per week, those with a 2.4 to a 2.8 have eight hours and gymnasts with GPAs below 2.4 have 12 hours.
When the gymnasts are struggling, or even if they’re getting a B in a class, Drass encourages them to get tutors.
“They have a vault coach, they have a beam coach, they have a floor coach, they have a bar coach,” Drass said. “Why would you not have a geometry coach, or a physics coach, a psychology coach or a chemistry coach? That’s what I liken it to. You can do it on your own. I’m sure you would be a good gymnast, but with a coach’s help you could be a better student or gymnast.”
Drass says that while many college coaches talk about the importance academics, he ensures that it is a priority on his team.
“It’s not just something you say, it’s something you have to live every day. Every single day we get grade reports, or we get, you know, ‘How are you doing in school? How’d your test go? How’s this test going?’ I’m talking to these athletes about that all the time. Sometimes they would rather have me not talk about it, you know, especially if something’s going bad.”
When one of the gymnasts wasn’t keeping up in school during the fall semester, Drass kicked her out of practice until she met with her professor and put together a plan on how to raise her grade.
“She was out 10 days or a week or something,” Drass said. “That’s not my problem, my problem is making sure she graduates. The ball’s in the kid’s court to actually go and make a change in what they’re doing. Because obviously what they’re doing isn’t working.”
The gymnasts say that academic excellence is something that they expect from one another.
“I think our team definitely pushes each person,” Hatcher said. “If somebody’s not getting the job done, we all try to help each other out.”