Recruiting Gymnasts During The Age Of COVID-19

Recruiting Gymnasts During The Age Of COVID-19

Abigail Scanlon and Payton Harris share their gymnastics recruiting process during a pandemic with virtual tours, Zoom calls, and the uncertainty of it all.

Jan 11, 2021 by Amanda Wijangco
Recruiting Gymnasts During The Age Of COVID-19

Just three months into 2020 and the world seemed to be shutting down. Schools closed, and classes were moved online. Gyms had to temporarily close. Competitions and meets were canceled. The gymnastics season was suddenly over for club and NCAA. Everyone’s lives were suddenly changing. There were new adjustments to be made all around.

But Abigail Scanlon had, even more, to adjust to in 2020.

“I was excited but also super nervous because I was making one of the biggest changes in my life,” she said.

She moved from Virginia to Illinois to train at Legacy Elite Gymnastics, moved in with a host family, started at a new school, and began competing at level 10 under her new gym. Scanlon didn’t realize how much she would miss her family back home in Virginia, and being new at school always comes with stress. She’s shy, which made it more difficult to make friends, wasn’t used to a non-block schedule, and was two weeks behind because she arrived in Illinois in mid-January.

Though gymnastics is the same in Virginia and Illinois, the transition to Legacy Elite wasn’t any easier.

“It was the middle of the season, and I was going into a completely different environment compared to my gym in Virginia,” she said. “With the allegations against Legacy, I was honestly nervous, but the coaches and girls have treated me as if I have been there my whole life. Legacy Elite is such a family environment, which is what I need as a human and athlete. So it did make the transition easier, but that by no means makes the transition close to being as easy as I thought it would be.”

She had to become acquainted with new coaching styles, their conditioning and practice hours, and how the team worked together overall.

A few months later when the pandemic hit in March, another weight was added to her shoulders, because Scanlon still wasn’t fully adjusted to her new life. She wondered if moving was a mistake.

“When the pandemic happened, it made matters 10 times worse.”

- Abigail Scanlon

“I wasn’t with my family during the scary time, and everything that kept me going had just stopped. If I’m being honest, I got really depressed because of COVID and had to start taking medication, because I mentally was in such a bad place. It had taken everything I knew away.”

Meanwhile, Wisconsin gymnast Payton Harris was on track for her best level 10 season yet. Unfortunately, her best season yet ended early, not even having a chance to compete at regionals or J.O. Nationals.

“I started off my season really strong, and I was really confident and felt really great with the spot I was in and how I can keep growing and improving from there,” Harris said. “I remember my last meet was the Chicago Style meet, and I had the best meet of my entire life with my highest all-around score.”

Harris earned a 38.525 at the IGI Chicago Style Meet and continued to train at M&M Gymnastics for the Wisconsin state championships. One day at practice, her coaches pulled her team aside to announce that some of their meets would be canceled due to COVID and they may not finish the season.

Eventually, the rest of the 2020 season did get canceled. Harris may have ended her 2020 season on a high note but still had reason to be upset.

“I was devastated to hear this because I felt I couldn’t showcase a lot of my hard work and training the biggest meets of the year,” Harris said. “So it was hard to hear that we might not have that opportunity.”

Adjusting To The New Normal

The coronavirus pandemic changed life as we know it. Suddenly it’s more difficult to plan for the future, whether it be weddings, big celebrations or sports games and meets. As high school students and top club gymnasts, Scanlon and Harris have both been on track for collegiate gymnastics. But COVID-19 restrictions prevent them (and other prospective college students and student-athletes) from a typical college search.

Neither could simply travel around the country to visit schools in person or meet coaches. Coaches couldn’t visit their club gyms or attend their meets either. Everything had to be done virtually.

Although both gymnasts went through the recruitment process during the pandemic and had to rely on remote options, their journeys to committing are quite different.

Coaches began reaching out to Scanlon, currently a senior in high school, in 2014 after she competed at the HOPES Challenge. Scanlon was too young to interact with the coaches, though, so recruitment was done through her coaches for a few years. Because she started getting recruited at such an early age, Scanlon was able to go through a “normal” recruitment process, visiting campuses and meeting coaches at summer camps. But because she decided to switch her initial verbal commitment last year which landed her back to square one — only she couldn’t travel anywhere this time.

Recruitment began for Harris, currently a junior, about two years ago. She created a YouTube channel and uploaded training videos and competition routines. Harris started getting traction after the IGI Chicago Style Meet at the start of 2020 when she scored her career-high all-around score. Schools started reaching out to her gym, M&M Gymnastics, and her family. So remote recruitment is all Harris really knows.

Countrywide travel hasn’t been banned during the pandemic, but it has been advised against. Visiting campuses is a large part of the recruitment process, but official visits aren’t happening, and some schools aren’t doing any in-person tours for any prospective students. Gymnasts have the option to visit a school on their own, but Scanlon — who’s been able to visit campuses before — knows even that isn’t as simple as it seems.

“It’s a struggle to go to campus even just to look around because if I travel, I have to quarantine. That means I have to miss school, and I have to miss practices. So that’s also hard because we had so much time off. We’re trying to come back for season if we even have one.”

- Abigail Scanlon

Scanlon and Harris both relied on video and phone calls to communicate with coaches and programs before verbally committing to California and Ohio State, respectively. Both agree that while video calls offer face-to-face interaction, nothing can truly replace in-person visits.

“I wanted to get a really good feel for the coaching staff, which was hard because I definitely wanted to meet everyone in person, but I could not,” Harris said. “I also wanted to go to a top-notch school that would act as a springboard for my career after gymnastics. Finally, I did consider the gymnastics facilities, because I knew that I would be spending so much time there. The pandemic had a huge impact on all of these decisions because I literally had to get a feel for all of these things from Zoom meetings. Although all of the coaches did a great job, it is still not the same as seeing everything in person.”

Scanlon concurred, especially having gone through recruitment before.

“I also was stressed, because I wasn’t able to actually visit the schools as easily or go to camps that truly give me the feel for the school, and that’s a huge part in the recruiting process,” she said. “Having done the process before, I knew I needed to actually visit the schools and meet the coaches in person because that really gives me a good feel for the environment.”

Because everything had to be done virtually, Harris spent a lot of time on calls. Starting June 15, 2020, Harris said she had a Zoom or phone call just about every day of the week with different schools for a month. It’s certainly a change from the limited options in-person visits require due to travel, both on gymnasts’ and coaches’ ends.

“It is an extremely flattering process to feel wanted by so many schools,” Harris said. “But after about a month, it did get somewhat overwhelming trying to balance everything.”

Balance and awareness are key in gymnastics. Harris learned they’re also important in recruiting. 

When recruiting in person, everyone’s physically in the same place, so they’re all in the same time zone. But during remote recruitment, people are all over the country. Schools from all over the country reached out to Harris, from the Pacific Time to Eastern. Living in Wisconsin, she’s on Central Time.

One day Harris left practice early for a call with Ohio State, which is on Eastern Time. She checked her phone to see a message from one of the assistant coaches telling her the call was Eastern and not Central Time. She missed the call.

“I was devastated and thought I blew my chance with Ohio State,” Harris said.

Fortunately for Harris, the Buckeye coaches were understanding, and they rescheduled. Her parents then kept reminding her to double-check time zones for calls after that. After all, remote recruitment relies heavily on calls — phone and Zoom/video. When travel is restricted, there aren’t really other options.

“I was definitely nervous having to do Zoom calls because I can be very shy at times, but most of the Zoom calls I had with the programs I was looking at were amazing,” Scanlon said. “The coaches made it less awkward, and that’s a really good sign when in the process, because if you aren’t comfortable talking with a coach, then it can make it difficult to make a good bond/relationship.”

Despite her nerves, Scanlon felt Zoom calls were actually better overall, because “the coaches really had to sell the school/program.” Programs couldn’t rely on new, fancy, expensive training facilities, beautiful weather, or a picturesque campus.

“I honestly felt like I got more information that way since we couldn’t do anything in person,” Scanlon said.

Harris spoke highly of her video call experiences with her future coaches and teammates, which ultimately sold her on verbally committing to Ohio State. Because of meets in past years, she’d actually been able to visit the Columbus campus twice before and “loved it.”

“I felt great about the campus, and then it was just a matter of feeling great about the coaching staff,” she said. “Ohio State didn’t reach out immediately like other schools did, but once they did, I felt an immediate connection to all of the coaches. They had a really cool Zoom meeting idea for myself, my parents, and my coach where they turned out the lights in their new competition arena and turned on the fog machine. Coach Paulicivic even threw on a warm-up suit and acted like it was meet night. It was super cool and well done, and I think sealed the deal for me. I knew I wanted to be a Buckeye!”

But before Harris was sold, there were worries. Choosing which college to commit to is a big decision, and Harris “had many great offers from many great programs,” including some that “reached out to nearly every day.”

“The decision-making process was stressful because I wanted to be done, but at the same time I didn’t - want to rush.”

- Payton Harris

“With all the offers I received, my parents kept telling me that you can’t make a wrong decision, because these are all top-notch schools, and a degree from any of these schools will get your career on the right track. That helped a lot because at first, my fear was all about making a wrong decision, and I feel my parents were completely right.”

It turns out Scanlon’s decision to move to Illinois and switch her commitment was also right ― even in the midst of a pandemic. Scanlon said all of the change 2020 brought was a lot on her physically and mentally, but now she’s glad she stuck through, “because never felt happier in life.”

“When I committed to Cal, I felt so shocked and relieved, but that a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Scanlon said. “I didn’t expect them to make an offer for me since they hadn’t seen me compete in a while, but I guess they really see a lot of potential in me but also trust I can contribute to the team! It definitely lifted my spirits knowing someone has belief in my abilities despite not having competed in a while because of COVID and all the crazy stuff going on.”

Scanlon is almost a Cal Golden Bear as she graduates this summer. Scanlon’s been recruited for about six years, and after going through the unique process in 2020, she offered some advice for gymnasts looking at colleges during this uncertain time.

“Just take it one step at a time. Everything’s up in the air, especially right now. Things can change really quickly, so it’s best to just be patient and trust the process. Keep working hard and doing whatever you can to get through the season and to really show what you’re capable of. Definitely keep everything in the present. Don't worry too much about the future, because anything can change at any moment.”

- Abigail Scanlon

Harris recommends other gymnasts also post-competition videos to their YouTube channels and to create a list of top schools as she did. After making her big decision during the pandemic, she’s learned a thing or two.

“The most important thing is to enjoy it for yourself and enjoy it with your family because you only get to go through this process once. Don’t make it too overwhelming, and enjoy it.”

- Payton Harris