When Fisk University’s gymnasts arrive at meets their shimmering leotards aren’t the only reason heads turn. Competitors stare and openly cheer for the team during routines, and audiences erupt with applause for every vault, flip and twist landed.
Afterward, crowds migrate to the gym floor to congratulate the young women and take photos with them, and wherever the Fisk gymnasts travel alumni from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) all over the country travel as well. Many spectators are eager to see the team composed entirely of Black and Hispanic women, the first artistic gymnastics program at an HBCU to compete at the NCAA level.
“The crowd all came down and they’re like, ‘We’re here to support Fisk,’ [or] ‘Oh, my gosh, like, you’re doing so well.’ All the little brown girls are just so happy to see us. It’s like an amazing experience,” said Kiara Richmon, a sophomore transfer from Southern Connecticut State. “It really opened up my eyes, like, people are really happy for us, no matter if we do good or bad. They’re just excited to see a team filled with people of color coming together and starting this and making history.”
Though Fisk athletic director and gymnastics head coach Corrinne Tarver recruited her team last year under that exact premise, at the time she didn’t fully understand what would ensue.
After freshman Zyia Coleman posted a video of the Nashville, Tennessee, team’s first practice on her TikTok account, the video went viral, attracting more than 1 million views and foreshadowing the spotlight that was to come. Although overwhelming at times, Tarver hopes the national attention focused on her program encourages other HBCUs to follow suit.
“Being the first HBCU, I’m excited about that and wanting to make it the best it possibly can be so others will follow,” Tarver said. “We really want to get more [HBCUs] to add women’s gymnastics, because there’s so many girls of color who would love to be able to do that, to be able to go to an HBCU and continue to do gymnastics.
“Gymnastics is an inclusive sport, and all women regardless of race or ethnicity can be successful in the sport. … But we do want to make it acceptable that you can have a team that’s comprised of women of color. It just has not been done before.”
Tarver isn’t a stranger to being a trailblazer. She was the first Black gymnast to join the University of Georgia’s gymnastics program, and in 1989 she became the first Black gymnast to win the all-around title at the NCAA national championship. Before being hired at Fisk, Tarver was an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania and spent time in athletic administrative roles.
However, gymnastics has changed since Tarver was a gymnast three decades ago. Although plagued by the perception of being a predominantly white sport, the success of Black gymnasts such as Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles has encouraged others. Currently, Black women make up 8% of female gymnasts across all three NCAA divisions, up from 6% as of 10 years ago.
Black women have fared well in recent NCAA gymnastics championships. During last year’s national championship meet every winner was a Black or Asian American woman in all four apparatus (floor, vault, uneven bars and beams) and in the all-around competition. Florida’s Trinity Thomas took home all-around honors and individual titles in floor and uneven bars. Auburn’s Suni Lee was crowned the beam champion, and Utah’s Jaedyn Rucker earned the top spot on the vault.
“It is phenomenal to see [Black women] out there and to see us just shining. But the fact is, when you look at a roster, we still make up the minority,” Tarver said. “We’re still kind of sprinkled in here and there, two on this team, one on this team. Maybe you’ll have three on the team, but some teams have none. So we’re still such a minority. So it’s exciting to have an HBCU. We’re the majority for once.”
In 2020, after Fisk was released from probation by the governing body that controls the university’s accreditation, administrators brainstormed new athletics programs that would help increase enrollment. A gymnastics program was floated as a possibility, but serious conversations about the feasibility of creating a program wouldn’t begin until November 2021.
The idea was revisited after Fisk board member Frank Simmons’ niece told him about being forced to decide between an HBCU and gymnastics. In January 2022, the university formed a partnership with Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 that is helping HBCUs build gymnastics programs. Since the organization’s creation, it has partnered with Fisk, Grambling State in Louisiana and Talladega College in Alabama and also has organized camps on HBCU campuses.
On Feb. 11, 2022, then-Fisk athletic director Larry Glover announced the university would create a gymnastics program. Within a week, his office was flooded with emails and calls from gymnasts nationwide interested in joining.
“That was kind of the urgency for us to go ahead and name a coach because we were getting calls once we made that announcement,” Glover said. “Yeah, it happened so quickly, but that goes to show when you’re committed to something, once you get the momentum and you start moving, everything just fell in line. This is something that we wanted.”
When Richmon first saw the announcement on social media, she jumped into action.
“I literally sent it to Bree [Southern Connecticut State University teammate Breyana Daniels] immediately. I was like, ‘Look at this. We could go here together,’ ” Richmon said. “At that time, like, Coach T wasn’t even the coach, like, they didn’t even have anyone, and I contacted someone at the school.”
Fisk hired Tarver in April 2022. She filled her roster with freshmen and transfers, assembling a competition-ready team in three months including five-star recruit Morgan Price, who decommitted from Arkansas, a top 20 program, to join the team.
“For the first group of kids I bought in because I basically said, ‘Every single one of you will be a part of history, your names will go down in history,’ and it’s been showing,” Tarver said.
The current team is composed of 15 gymnasts, 11 freshmen and four sophomores. Five members are transfers from predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
“It feels really good because I’m transferring from a PWI,” said Daniels, a sophomore who transferred from Southern Connecticut State with Richmon. “So having a group of girls that look like me and it’s inclusive, it’s just really good to feel like I belong.”
Richmon also said she feels a sense of belonging at the HBCU.
“I’ve been searching for that home environment and being here at Fisk I definitely found it, even with the people on campus that aren’t on the team,” Richmon said. “It’s very supportive and just a lot of love.”
The Nashville community also has embraced the team: Local organizations have donated equipment, and the team practices at a local gym while trying to raise $2 million to build a facility on campus. Top NCAA programs have aided the program with donations, including a new floor and leotards.
“[At Georgia] We didn’t have a locker room. We didn’t have lockers, we had cubbies. … So we didn’t have a lot and we were national champions with not a lot,” Tarver said. “You don’t need to have luxury in order to be successful. You just need to have the determination to want to win.”
Less than a year after the official announcement, Fisk competed in its first intercollegiate meet on Jan. 6 at the Super 16 in Las Vegas.
Glover spent the entire day watching his alma mater.
“They represent not just Fisk, but HBCUs in general, you know, when they go out there and compete,” Glover said. “We were extremely excited and really proud of what they’ve accomplished so far just being able to go out there and compete at a high level with the big NCAA Division I schools.”
While the team will compete against Division I programs for most of its inaugural season, Fisk expects to be an official Division II program in the future. Tarver said Fisk is petitioning for an NCAA waiver to compete as a Division II program independently from the university’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics athletic status. This season the team won’t be eligible for the NCAA nationals but will aim to qualify for the USA Gymnastics Women’s Collegiate National Championships in April.
The team finished its debut meet with a team score of 188.150, placing last in its session behind Southern Utah, Washington and North Carolina.
“One of the reasons I put them in this environment is because when you compete with better teams, the scores get better,” Tarver said. “So if you’re with the bigger schools and you show good routines, you get the scores you need. So I wanted them to be exposed to that.”
Fisk’s young team is still learning the rigors of collegiate gymnastics.
“It shows that we definitely have some room for improvement and we’re still, you know, working out some kinks and learning how to compete on the big stage with all these big teams,” said sophomore Naimah Muhammad after the team earned a score of 184.800 at the University of Michigan in its second meet.
In a meet against Georgia the team earned a 190.100, an increase of nearly two points from its first competition score; a week later, the gymnasts earned a 190.025 at the Tennessee College Classic.
“I’m happy with where we are [and] with what they’re doing,” Tarver said. “One of the things I’ve always said is I don’t care about scores, I don’t care about whether they are hitting every routine. Obviously we want to hit, but I just want them to grow each week, learn, so that we can build on what we did the week before.”
For the gymnastics community Fisk’s program doesn’t just serve as a goal for younger girls who hope to one day compete in a leotard bearing Fisk’s or another HBCU’s emblem. Fisk’s gymnasts also are living a dream older gymnasts wish they could’ve taken part in but were decades too early.
“Of course the representation matters, but in a deeper sense, because they’re right,” said Brown Girls Do Gymnastics founder Derrin Moore. “They’re somebody that [you] can actually go to Fisk University and see them and take a picture with them, but then they can also turn on the TV and see them competing.
“It’s like this big, huge HBCU gymnastics family that’s created around the fact that this would have been joyous [for former gymnasts],” Moore said. “Their career in gymnastics would have been so much different if they had been at an HBCU together.”
Tarver recalls meeting a Fisk alumna who said that when she decided to go to an HBCU decades earlier she had to quit gymnastics. Thanks to Fisk, that won’t be a decision the next generation of gymnasts has to make.
“That’s sad. She had to make a choice, so we want to be able to give these young women opportunities to make that decision,” Tarver said. “If they want to go to a PWI, great, that’s what you should do. But if you want to go to an HBCU, there’s an opportunity for you to do so, but we need more.”
After years of lobbying programs to add gymnastics, Moore is noticing how Fisk’s success has changed the perception of gymnastics at HBCUs and believes accessibility and viability are the keys to more athletic programs adding the sport.
“Typically in the past, we have not been able to even get a toe in the door. We would email, like, athletic directors, coaches that we have some connection with, and we wouldn’t get too far,” Moore said. “But since Fisk we’ve talked to, I think we’ve talked to, a total of 10 presidents and athletic directors just because these HBCUs and [athletic directors] are interested and wanting to see what it would be like.”
A week after Fisk’s debut, Talladega announced its partnership with HBCU Gymnastics Alliance, a network of institutions dedicated to bringing gymnastics programs to HBCUs, and Brown Girls Do Gymnastics to create its own program.
“That’s my goal, to have as many HBCUs that add gymnastics as possible, because you know right now a lot of them are doing a wait and see,” Tarver said. “So I’m hoping that they realize this is something that needs to happen and it’s viable.”