Briley Casanova was raised as a gymnast. Before she was 2 years old, Casanova was on the mat with her parents and a growing adoration of the sport she would go on to compete in for decades.
Years of hard work motivated Casanova, 25, to take the next step to the college ranks, but there was no option for her to remain close to home and compete in one of the nation’s top conferences.
Three Big 12 schools — Oklahoma, Iowa State and West Virginia — sponsor varsity women’s gymnastics programs. Texas Woman’s University, competing in the Midwest Independent Conference, is the only in-state school to house a program. The University of Texas at Austin has not fielded a varsity program since 1981.
For Casanova, this meant moving more than 1,000 miles north to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to compete at the University of Michigan in 2013. She loved her four years with the Wolverines, competing among the country’s best in the Big Ten, but she said she would’ve liked to have a strong collegiate option in Texas.
Interest in collegiate gymnastics has increased in recent years. In 2019, University of Utah, University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, UCLA and University of Georgia — all teams who finished in the Top 10 in the final rankings — averaged at least 10,000 spectators at their events, up from just two schools that did so in 2015. The only Texas sport to average more than that many fans in 2019 was football.
Even with a rich in-state talent pool and national interest, UT-Austin — the university with the state’s foremost collegiate athletics program — hasn’t participated in gymnastics in decades. The landmark 1993 Title IX lawsuit filed against the University tells a big part of the story as to why.
UT’s Title IX showdown
Donna Lopiano knew it was coming.
From her first year on campus in 1975, the former UT women’s athletics director was convinced the University wasn’t Title IX compliant. In fact, she said one of the first things she did in her 17-year tenure was go to former Athletics Director Darrell K Royal and ask for change.
“I said, ‘Guys, we don’t have any money, and you guys have a lot of money, and I think we should merge the departments,’” Lopiano said. “(That request) ensured that it would never happen until recently.”
Gymnastics was a varsity sport when Lopiano arrived at UT, but she said she had to cut the program in 1981 because funding of the women’s athletics program didn’t allow for it. According to Austin-based lawyer Diane Henson, there were more than three times the number of male participants than female participants at the time.
Lopiano said several times a year, someone would come into her office and ask what it would take to expand the women’s athletics programs. She said she kept a box underneath her desk with copies of Title IX investigator manuals and business cards for Henson, and each time a parent or coach would come ask her for change, she would give them one of each.
Lopiano left the University in 1992 and was replaced by women’s basketball coach Jody Conradt. One of the last people to whom she handed Henson’s business card was club rowing coach Jeff Gardner, who reached out to Henson to file a lawsuit.
Henson found there were significant disparities in both the funding and resources given to male and female programs at UT. So, in the summer of 1992, she partnered with seven female students, including three club gymnasts, and began the Title IX suit against the University.
After several hearings in federal court, UT decided to settle the case out of court. After what both Lopiano and Henson described as two grueling days of mediation, the University decided to add softball and soccer as varsity sports. Rowing would also be added several years later.
The settlement was a landmark victory for equal opportunity at the school — increasing the number of female athletes from 23% to 44% after all three new sports had officially begun — and set off dominoes for similar suits around the country.
Gymnastics still had not returned as a varsity sport 27 years later. Instead, UT offers a club team that competes against other collegiate teams, but does not have varsity status or receive funding that a varsity team would. Henson said she thought the three gymnasts named as plaintiffs in the suit had shown the sport’s advantages, but the school still had its reservations.
Conradt said that softball, soccer and rowing made the most sense for
UT. The cost to build facilities was relatively low, the sports would add the proper number of participants, and UT could recruit from varsity high school teams, not independent gyms.
“Any time we add a sport, we have to consider, ‘Where are we going to do it? And how are we going to build infrastructure?’” Conradt said.
The decision to keep gymnastics as a club sport remains to this day.
“There’s no excuse”
With Division II Texas Woman’s University as the state’s only gymnastics program, the state’s top young gymnasts are left with no choice but to compete around the country if they want to compete at a Division I level.
Meanwhile, three of 16 women’s senior USA national team members and five of 11 junior national team members train in Texas. Gyms like Texas Dreams Gymnastics in Coppell, Texas, and Casanova’s WOGA Gymnastics in Frisco, Texas, constantly produce young talent who go on to compete at the collegiate and international levels.
“Most of the world’s best train in Texas and grow up here and develop their skills,” Casanova said. “It’s such an advantage that we have going on here. We have this pool of great coaches and great opportunity in this state.”
The University would already have an advantage in the program’s funding. According to USA Today, UT brought in the most revenue of any collegiate athletics program in the 2018-2019 year. If a varsity gymnastics program were to be started, the resources would be in place for a consistent national title contending team, Lopiano said.
“When you’re as rich as Texas, you recruit the best gymnasts in the United States,” Lopiano said. “You get the best coach. You get full scholarship allowances. You could be an immediate contender for a national championship. … There’s no excuse. If they want to do it, they can.”
Casanova participated in dozens of meets in her four years at Michigan, competing in meets everywhere from Cancun, Mexico, to the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor.
The lifelong gymnast and Texan said there’s one thing that connects the sport and would make it an instant success at an athletics-driven school like UT: The raucous crowd, combined with the level of competition at the collegiate level, makes for an atmosphere that few other sports rival.
“It’s just electric,” Casanova said. “It’s so enamoring to watch athletes do this crazy stuff with their bodies and make it look so easy. I think there’s something magical about it.”