Couch: Michigan State's gymnastics program rises from the ashes

Delanie Harkness performs the floor exercise during the Spartans' win over Michigan earlier this season.
Delanie Harkness performs the floor exercise during the Spartans' win over Michigan earlier this season.

EAST LANSING – On the third floor of Jenison Field House, you’ll find joy and excitement. Fire and drive. Playfulness and respect. A championship program that sees its biggest dreams within reach at work.

This is the present-day story of Michigan State gymnastics — a program making its second straight NCAA regionals appearance — as the No. 3 seed in the Pittsburgh Regional, beginning competition Friday — a year after barely missing out on a top-two regional finish, which would have sent the Spartans to the national championships.

That was heartbreaking in the moment — finishing .425 points from being one of the final eight teams competing nationally. Perhaps nothing says more about how far MSU’s program has come than what breaks its heart.

The program that, not all that long ago, was known for its association with an evil doctor, has redefined itself, both internally and within the gymnastics community.

It’s done so largely with a staff that endured the worst of times and with athletes that chose MSU at the peak or in the wake of the program’s grief and perceived disgrace.

“A lot of people would always ask me, ‘Why are you still going to Michigan State?’ ” said sophomore All-American Skyla Shulte, who committed as a freshman in high school and whose parents both went to MSU. “I just had a feeling that this team and this program can overcome anything. And I think we proved that last year.”

“Our family environment … that was something that I was easily able to pick up on when I visited (in 2019),” said fellow sophomore and Chicagoland native Gabrielle Stephen. “They were so welcoming. And also seeing how much diversity there is on the team was a big comfort to me.”

Shulte and Stephen could have gone just about anywhere to compete in college. Same for freshman Nikki Smith and junior Delanie Harkness, who were also first-team All-Big Ten selections this year.

This is a team with a lot of talent, without overwhelming egos, assembled intentionally and, admittedly, with a little luck. Shulte bled green before she ever stepped on campus. Smith’s older sister, Nyah, is on the team. Harkness grew up in nearby Leslie and knew the Spartans’ coaches “forever” and didn’t want to stray too far from home.

And it’s a team with one nonnegotiable: “You will all care about each other,” head coach Mike Rowe said.

That, they’ll tell you, has taken hold. It is part of their edge. Part of the reason they won a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship and finished second by a hair at the Big Ten meet. Part of why the program has risen from dark times and mediocrity to an elite tier.

“It helps a lot knowing that your teammates are on the sidelines, genuinely cheering for you,” said junior Baleigh Garcia, a second-team All-Big Ten selection from Boynton Beach, Florida. “They're not just cheering for you to make the beam routine or to get the highest score. They really care about how you do personally and just how you're feeling. We genuinely want them to do well.”

MSU celebrates its Big Ten regular season championship after beating Illinois on Feb. 27.
MSU celebrates its Big Ten regular season championship after beating Illinois on Feb. 27.

An improbable rise

There is visceral happiness in associate head coach Nicole Jones’ voice when she thinks about MSU’s Big Ten regular-season championship and how much pride there is in the program these days. It’s hard to describe the initial sound she made, something that could only come from deep within the soul.

“To see these things happen for this program, after everything it's been through and to have ridden all the waves of the program, that means everything,” said Jones, formerly Curler, who starred at MSU in the late 2000s. “All those recruits that we've had conversations with and we told them to believe in the process and told them this is what the vision was, to see that all playing out and these kids here who have stayed or have committed to us and believed in our process … and for all that to happen is special.

“It's just been so cool to see the shifts, even personally. Like when we were going through all of that, when you would go on the road recruiting or you would just be in public, a lot of people were embarrassed to wear Michigan State. Like you were ashamed to put on that Spartan hat or that Michigan State gear, and to now have so much pride in wearing Michigan State and knowing how much respect Michigan State gymnastics has now, I can't put into words what that means.”

She and Rowe have been through it all. They were on Kathie Klages’ coaching staff. Rowe took over the program following Klages’ exit and elevated Jones to associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. Before this year, they added Devin Wright as an assistant coach, replacing Whitney Snowden, who left for the University of Missouri after three seasons in East Lansing.

Rowe, a professional dancer who toured with many a show in his younger life, empowers his staff. He sees Jones and now Wright as critical to the program’s rise and their connections to an increasingly younger and changing gymnastics community as vital to the Spartans’ uptick in recruiting.

They prioritized fit. Good gymnasts, sure. But “good humans,” as Jones put it. They met as a team several years ago to address issues within their culture they thought would hold them back.

“We said it didn't matter how talented the athletes we had coming in were, if we didn't have our crap in line, like as a team first, we weren't going to accomplish these big goals that we had,” Jones said.

“These girls, they will tell you, 100% they can be their true, authentic self,” she continued, watching the final practice at Jenison before leaving for Friday’s regional. “We have the weirdest people running around like crazy. They are goofy. But they feel like they can be their authentic selves. And I think when that happens, you have athletes that are more confident in who they are. … I think that has been a driving factor in what we're building.”

While they no longer feel limited by the past, there are challenges ahead, namely facilities.

“If you would go to any other top 10 team in the country and you look at their gym, it does not look like Jenison Field House,” Jones said.

“We're waiting our turn,” Rowe said. “It’s going to happen sometime. We have alumni and donors that have reached out and there are a lot of sports in line for things that happen here. And there are big expenses that go along with facility. That doesn't mean we don't stop wishing and hoping and planning. I’ve got a whole (practice) facility drawn up, the blueprint and everything, three-dimensional renderings.”

Rowe and Jones also point out that they’ve gotten here, to this incredible place, without some of the shiny objects that other top programs can offer.

“We're trying to make it to the national championships,” Jones said. “That’s kind of that next step for us. But there's only eight teams. And that's tough.”

Jori Jackard and Nikki Smith pose after MSU's win over Bowling Green and Long Island University this season, when the Spartans broke the MSU team record for a meet score with a 198.225
Jori Jackard and Nikki Smith pose after MSU's win over Bowling Green and Long Island University this season, when the Spartans broke the MSU team record for a meet score with a 198.225

A program already near the top

The Spartans are two good sessions in Pittsburgh from reaching that dream. MSU competes Friday afternoon against 2-seed Cal, West Virginia and Western Michigan, with the top two teams from that session reaching Sunday’s final against the top two teams from a group that includes the region's top seed, Florida. The top two teams from the overall region advance to the NCAA Gymnastics Championships, April 13 and 15 in Fort Worth, Texas.

If it seems like MSU’s program came out of nowhere onto the national stage these last two seasons, it’s only because we didn’t see it coming. This program surge actually emerged from the pandemic, when MSU had a full season canceled and missed a chunk of the next season, too. A lot of growth was happening behind the scenes.

“We kind of knew we were going to come back and as a little bit of a surprise,” said senior Jori Jackard from Haslett. “We definitely knew going into the beginning of last season that we were going to look good.”

They did. They rewrote swaths of the program's record book. Everything was new and fun. They just kept rolling until that abrupt finish at the regionals.

Rowe and Jones knew they had plenty of talent coming back and more coming in. However, they had lost their 2017 freshman class to graduation, the gymnasts who’d largely been behind the program’s ascent.

“The only thing I questioned was, are we going to have the leadership that we had and what it took to get us where we were last year,” Rowe said. “We lost five really strong leaders that all worked well together as a group. They wanted to take this program as far as they could. And they did.”

“Last year in the fall, like they were really loud,” Jones said. “It was a different energy. And this year, they've been cool, calm and collected from the day they stepped on campus. And so we were like, ‘Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing?’ You just didn't know, because it was so different.

“It clearly has just been their identity and who they are. They just knew what they were capable of. I think that's something that's been missing from our program — just knowing that you can hang with anybody. That has been so cool, just watching that develop for our program.”

This season has come with more firsts — including a program-record for a high score in a meet (198.225) and MSU’s first Big Ten regular-season crown.

“Literally the best feeling in the world,” Stephen said of that championship. “I can barely put it into words. We were jumping for joy, literally.”

Fans have responded, packing Jenison for more than just rivalry meets against Michigan.

“When it was sold out again for Penn State, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, these people are here for us.’ ” Jones said.

What a change in vibe. What a journey. An intentional and ongoing one.

“We try to get them to use their voices,” Rowe said. “Above all, it’s communication. Building their trust. … We can’t ever lose that.”

MSU celebrates its team-record 198.225 against Bowling Green and Long Island.
MSU celebrates its team-record 198.225 against Bowling Green and Long Island.

Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Michigan State's gymnastics program rises from ashes, chases dreams