Out of the ashes
Cut in 2010, Cal gymnastics has rebuilt itself into a contender
It was almost 9 a.m. in late September of 2010 when the text came in. Alicia Asturias and Dallas Crawford were in Anthropology 3C when they were summoned to their practice gym at the Golden Bear Rec Center.
The pair made a hasty exit from class and trekked up Dwight Way. Inside the gym, they found their teammates and then-head coach Cari DuBois. DuBois stood before her California women’s gymnastics squad, her face stoic and beet red. She didn’t make eye contact.
“We’re cut,” she told the Bears, tears streaming down her face.
Those who paid attention to the Cal women’s gymnastics team five years ago know what happened next. Women’s gymnastics, as well as the four other sports that were cut, were all reinstated thanks to generous support from donors and the community.
But what has happened since then has been nothing short of a modern-day sports myth, unheard of as women’s gymnastics programs around the country have suffered cuts. Out of the flames, Cal has risen to national prominence, entering 2015 ranked 14th in the country with a roster rife with world-class talent.
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“It was like we were not off the roller coaster ... we were just at the second drop.”
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Following what could only be described as a roller coaster of a season in 2011, DuBois retired, heralding another major change to the women’s gymnastics program: a new coach. In May, Cal called in Danna Durante, then the associate head coach for Nebraska who was named the 2007 National Assistant Coach of the Year. In her nine years in Lincoln, Durante coached 11 gymnasts to 23 All-America honors and multiple NCAA championship appearances.
What Durante inherited at Cal was a team with a number of injured gymnasts and student-athletes still reeling from the shock of a rough year, and in some cases questioning their motivation to continue.
“She was used to winning and had great gymnasts,” Crawford said. “It was a shock for her.”
Durante enlisted the help of a bright Bay Area coach by the name of Justin Howell, who was familiar with the local recruiting landscape and had a strong résumé of producing NCAA-level talent at the club level, and the two set out to rebuild the team and its culture.
On the first day of official practice, every member of the 2012 team had to sign a contract.
“We had to read all of the rules and it felt like we were signing our name in blood. It was the level of commitment [Durante] expected,” Crawford said. “At the time we thought it was crazy.”
Durante and Howell brought structure to the newly reborn Cal program, challenging their gymnasts to reach levels they had never been pushed to by increasing their mental strength and cardio fitness.
“To infiltrate our broken community with a whole new structured plan -- it was kind of oil and water for the first couple of months,” Asturias said. “It was physically demanding and we were already emotionally drained from the season before. The rebound to a new coach and a new program was so short that it was like we were not off the roller coaster ... we were just at the second drop.”
Through the boot camps and the breakdowns, Cal progressed, and by the end of the season the Bears had improved their season-best score by more than half a point from 194.175 in 2011 to 194.725 in 2012. The team was slowly starting to find its footing.
“It was a huge learning year for everyone on our team. It was a step we needed for us to start rebuilding the program,” Crawford said. “Without that year, we wouldn't have this sense of trust and community that allowed us to make the gains that we did and have that cohesion between each other that had been created through the new regime.”
Just as Asturias and Crawford were finally settling into their collegiate gymnastics careers, lounging on a beach in Hawaii before the start of their junior year, another life-changing text arrived: Durante was hired to be the new head coach at Georgia.
After weeks of anticipation, Cal announced its new head gymnastics coach in July. Howell was the best fit, transitioning from assistant coach to head coach in just one year’s time. He bolstered his coaching staff with the addition of wife and club coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, who was also a seven-time U.S. National Team member, national judge, choreographer and two-time All-American at BYU.
As another fall training season set in, the coaching staff knew there was plenty left to be desired when it came to team culture, so they implemented a team retreat. In September, the staff and student-athletes headed to Sea Ranch, California on the Sonoma Coast, where they would be isolated with little cell service and no distractions from their goal: to become a team again.
One of the most important things that came out of the retreat was a new identity for the program. During the retreat, the coaching staff left the gymnasts on their own for a few hours to brainstorm their team goals.
“We all laid it out on the line,” Asturias said. “Senior after senior, it was ‘No regrets.’ If we're doing this, we are going 100 percent. We are in it emotionally. We have gone through so much. We owe it to ourselves in this team to make a difference.”
The team established a creed to help define its new identity. Composed entirely by the student-athletes on the 2012-13 team, it reads:
“Cal gymnastics is committed to letting our passion fuel our actions,
Choosing to see the positives even in the face of adversity,
Trusting in ourselves,
And believing in each other as a cohesive unit.”
“From that moment on every single thing that we did was in the vision of going into every single competition knowing that you could not have done anything more,” Asturias said.
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“We had the potential to do something completely opposite.”
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“What is your story?”
That was the question Crandall-Howell posed to her gymnasts prior to their 2013 season opener against Arizona, Auburn and Kentucky.
As the team gathered in their pre-meet huddle, the answer was clear.
“It wasn’t that the program got cut and Cal never came back. It wasn’t that Cal got a new coach and crumbled,” Asturias said. “It was that Cal was starting something and from that second it was all the work we put in, and all of our talks from Sea Ranch and preseason, and suddenly we were on the competition floor.”
The statement the Bears made that night echoed through Haas Pavilion and sent small ripples through the national gymnastics landscape as Cal topped two strong Southeastern Conference schools and Pac-12 rival Arizona with the highest season-opening score in program history.
“It was the first time for us that we had gained the sense of a team and a family, and I think it translated into our gymnastics and our first meet because we were just so happy to be where we were and we were so excited about where it was going to take us,” Crawford said. “Our coaches really pushed this fact of being in the moment and enjoying it, and that's what we carried with us throughout the entire season.”
The success only continued from there, with Cal bringing renewed energy into every meet of the 2013 season. At season’s end, Serena Leong was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Howell was awarded both conference and region Coach of the Year awards. The team capped off its home slate by logging the program’s second-highest score in program history at the time, and met their main goal of qualifying to NCAA Regional competition.
It was the first Cal team to do so since 2007.
“Thinking about the pressure we were under at that point and how we'd taken pressure as a program was a point of comparison," Asturias said. "I think why we did so well that year was taking those lows and understanding that we had the potential to do something completely opposite."
Though the team finished last at regionals, the bar had been sent. The gymnastics world could see Cal’s resilience, and more importantly, the Cal gymnasts could see their own resilience. The flames that once engulfed the program now served to ignite it.
"The athletes coming back now know what we're capable of,” Howell said after that 2013 regional competition. “They know what it takes, and we have a lot of talented freshmen coming in that are going to push them really hard. It's going to be a super competitive environment. It will be a brand new chapter.”
When the team returned in the fall of 2013 -- Howell’s third preseason with the team, and second as head coach--– there was no gap that needed to be filled when it came to team culture. Every single one of the returners made sure all seven newcomers knew how important living in the moment and appreciating their history was.
“If they didn't understand that, then there would be no way that we would be able to move forward as a team,” Crawford said.
New and old mixed seamlessly, allowing for the team to jump straight into refining their gymnastics skills.
“Having the seven freshmen just jump onto our ship and understand what we had done when we laid our story on the table and have their desire to continue that really set the tone for preseason,” Asturias said.
When the 2014 season started, Cal once again found a way to make a splash, this time claiming second at the five-team NorCal Classic with their second-highest score in a program opener. Meet after meet, the Bears broke both team records and expectations of a once-struggling gymnastics program.
“We had gone from a team with such a strong emotional connection, and then suddenly we had the gymnastics momentum to back us up,” Asturias said.
The season reached its climax at the Pac-12 Championships, an event Cal had never finished higher than fifth at. Heading into the final rotation of the second session of the regular-season finale, the Bears needed just a 48.775 on floor to claim a program-best fourth place, a mark they had reached on floor in seven previous meets that season.
History would not be made so easily. An out-of-bounds deduction in one routine and an uncharacteristic fall in another put Cal’s back against the wall and left then-junior Crystal Paz with only one option: hit her routine, or risk having her team disappear in the record books with another mediocre finish.
Paz delivered by matching her career-high 9.85 on floor. Instead of a fourth-place finish, the Bears eclipsed their best finish by not one but two places, claiming third to upset UCLA and Oregon State.
“For Crystal to step up in that moment -- it was an emotional moment as a team. It was the culmination of everything in that moment. I was starting to cry and feeling like we won the national championship,” Asturias said.
“If there’s one thing that we were trained to do, it’s that we were trained to compete well under an opportunity to showcase all the work that we’ve done. We trusted the process we’ve been through, the miles that we’ve come and that all those pieces would somehow come together. And it came together on the most epic of stages. That was the best moment.”
The Bears carried that momentum to their second consecutive NCAA Regional appearance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Unlike the previous year, Cal was very much in the conversation to claim one of two berths to the NCAA Championship. While it was a mark the team fell short of, finishing in fourth place, by the end of the 2014 season Cal’s list of accomplishments was beyond anyone’s expectations.
In a reversal of fortune from the rocky start both Asturias and Crawford had to their collegiate careers, their eligibility finished with both earning individual trips to the NCAA Championships, where Asturias became Cal’s first All-American since 1991. As a team, the Bears posted a 196.0 or better six times, more than any other squad in program history, and claimed 34 event titles -- more than double the amount from 2013.
Asturias enjoyed plenty of individual success as the program’s first-ever Pac-12 Scholar Athlete of the Year and a finalist for the AAI Award (most outstanding senior women's gymnast in the country). Cal’s newcomers proved the program’s foundation was stronger than ever as Charlie Owens and Jessica Howe combined for a conference-best four Pac-12 Freshman of the Week awards.
Perhaps the most telling accomplishment of all was that Cal ended 2014 ranked 16th in the country, up from 49th in 2012. In their two years under the guidance of Howell and Crandall-Howell, the Bears jumped 33 spots, tied for the largest improvement in ranking during a two-season span in NCAA history.
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“It’s never been our real focus to win.”
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Enter 2015, and Cal is starting the season at No. 14 -- the highest preseason ranking the program has ever attained. Howell is now in his third year at the helm, joined by newly elevated associate head coach Crandall-Howell as well as strong assistants in Jessa Hansen and Jeffrey Langenstein. The team’s identity is stronger than ever, and Cal’s fire grows brighter by the day as the Bears have started to be mentioned as contenders to qualify for the NCAA Championship, especially with the opportunity to host Regionals in Berkeley, California.
“Nationals is a goal that has become more and more attainable. While being the top team in the nation has never been a specific goal of ours, our effort each year to perform at the height of our abilities as a team has continually grown and, as a result, shown in numbers,” Paz, now a senior, said. “I know that we'll go far this year as a team because it's never been our real focus to win. It's been our goal to further ourselves as athletes and people, which has allowed us to come so far in recent years.”
“Our team was so successful last year because we viewed each day in the gym and the competition arena as an opportunity to get one day better and to do the sport we love for the ones who can't,” Howe, a sophomore, added.
It’s that passion that has helped Cal transform itself from a team smoldering in the ashes to a team poised to soar.
“Since my freshman year, our team’s commitment to the program and love for gymnastics and each other has grown with every incoming class,” said Leong, now a junior. “We are all passionate about gymnastics and about creating a family community within our team in and out of the gym. This shared passion helps us trust and motivate each other to be the best we can be and to continue to get one day better.”