The women of the Fisk University gymnastics team made history this year by becoming the first squad to represent a historically Black college or university (HBCU) while competing at the NCAA level in an organized event. A bit shocking in 2023, I know. There has been a handful of elite Black gymnasts peppered throughout the history of the sport stateside who have become household names — Dominique Dawes, Gabrielle Douglas, and Simone Biles immediately come to mind. Before them, there was Luci Collins, the first Black woman to make an Olympic team back in 1980. There was also Dianne Durham, the two-time Junior National Champion and Senior National Champion, who was the first elite U.S. gymnast to train with the famed Bella Karolyi. Gymnastics, like several other Olympic sports, often gets pushed into the background, overshadowed by basketball, American football, and soccer until it’s time for the Olympic Games every four years. However, social media has put us on to gymnasts like Sophina DeJesus, whose hip hop-infused floor routines while competing for the UCLA Bruins went viral. That’s cool, but the nation had still not seen anything quite like the ladies of Fisk University.
The first NCAA gymnastics championship was held in 1982; it would be a long 41 years before an HBCU would have a program to call their own. Fourteen months before competing at the Super 16 Gymnastics Invitational in January, the beginnings of the program began to take shape. Jordynn Cromartie dedicated a large portion of her life to the sport of gymnastics and was at a crossroads as she faced a decision on continuing her education. She wanted to attend an HBCU, but she also wanted to continue her athletics career. As things stood at the time, she would have to choose one over the other. A conversation with her uncle changed all of that. You see, Frank Simmons is a member of the Board of Trustees at Fisk and promised her a remedy over Thanksgiving dinner. Cromartie told AP, “He and my aunt were like, ‘Oh, you haven’t made a decision? You should come to Fisk. I’m like, ‘Well, they don’t have a gymnastics team.’ To go to a college that doesn’t have what I would be working for forever was crazy to me.” Within weeks of telling his niece that he would “make something happen,” Simmons introduced Derrin Moore to Fisk’s trustees. Moore is the founder of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the organization was formed in 2015 to help “guide Brown girls through their acrobatic careers,” and increase diversity and inclusion through access, coaching, training, and other forms of support. After hearing his pitch, a $100,000 donation was pledged if the small private school adopted the sport and the path to history began.
Every team needs a coach and who better to pioneer this squad of dynamic young women than Corrinne Tarver? A trailblazer herself, she became the first Black gymnast to win an NCAA all-around title in 1989 as a Georgia Bulldog. She also contributed to two NCAA team titles in 1987 and 1989, in addition to competing as part of the U.S. National team’s 1985-1986 season. Prior to taking the helm at Fisk, Tarver was an assistant coach at Penn. Although her journey took her to Athens, she understands the crossroads that Black gymnasts face when having to choose between attending an HBCU and continuing their career. Much like Cromartie, Tarver’s niece found herself having to make the same decision. “She did gymnastics throughout her entire career and she ended up going to Morgan State, which I’m so proud of, but they didn’t have gymnastics,” Tarver told the Nashville Post. “She couldn’t do gymnastics anymore. If she wanted to go to an HBCU, she had to give that up, so I wish she could have had an opportunity like this — be able to go to an HBCU as well as be able to do gymnastics.” In addition to her coaching duties, Tarver serves as the school’s athletic director with her previous administrative experience coming from an associate director of intercollegiate athletics and senior woman administrator role at Stockton University, plus an assistant director of athletic compliance position at Syracuse.
Still, it can be a lot of work building a program from the ground up, and the program got a big boost when five-star recruit Morgan Price flipped her commitment to the SEC’s Arkansas and took her talents to Fisk instead. It can be tough having all eyes on you as a freshman, but Price responded well, earning a 9.9 in her first-ever collegiate meet and maintaining that consistency since. Without the veteran presence found on more established programs, Price and her teammates are “all just learning how to do college gymnastics altogether,” said the Lebanon, Tennessee native, who is also pre-med and majoring in Biology. Tarver’s success as a collegiate gymnast and the fact that she looks like them is a big draw to the school as well. “I’ve never had an African American coach, so just to know that she was also a big-time college gymnast as well really helps and motivates me,” Price stated. “I know she went through the same struggles that I as a college gymnast now go through. She really cares about her athletes.” All 15 members of the Fisk squad are women of color. That number eclipses the total number found on the top five-ranked teams combined. Within that 15 is Naimah Muhammad, who became the first Muslimah to wear tights in a NCAA gymnastics competition after she petitioned and gained approval.
Although the number is growing, Black gymnasts still account for only 10 percent of scholarships at the NCAA Division I level. Tarver described that number during her collegiate career as “a scattering.” “One on this team, one on that team … There wasn’t a lot of African American gymnasts around back then compared to today.” Despite their young ages, Price and her teammates are being the change they want to see and have embraced being role models. “What we’re doing now shows the younger African American girls growing up, especially in the sport of gymnastics, that they can be like me and my teammates one day,” Price told NCAA.com. “The fact that we’re paving a way for the younger African American girls is really honoring for me and my teammates. If they really dream it, put their mind to it and keep working hard, they will be making history like us one day.” After years of being rebuffed, Moore has met with nine HBCU presidents in the wake of the Fisk program establishment. Still, schools are reluctant to pull the trigger right away; instead opting to see how Fisk handles things first.
People are keeping their eyes on the Lady Bulldogs, whose first-ever practice went viral and initiated an appearance on “The Jennifer Hudson Show.” Zyia Coleman, who posted the TikTok video, said she didn’t expect it to get so much attention. While the girls understand the importance of what they are doing, they may not realize the magnitude of their trailblazing, but Hudson was quick to show them. “Did you not realize the magic and the power of what you are doing?” Hudson asked on the show. During the television appearance, the program was surprised with a $25,000 check from Aunt Jackie’s Curls & Coils. Already holding their own against programs that have a 30-plus-year head start, the ladies of Fisk gymnastics are maintaining poise and balance while blazing a path for little Brown girls to flip into their futures.