Dream of gymnastics now a reality at Fisk

Posted at 5:22 AM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-24 06:22:05-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The story of Fisk Gymnastics starts with a conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table in November of 2021.

While discussing his niece’s upcoming college decision, university trustee Frank Simmons asked if she had considered Fisk?

Jordynn Cromartie replied that she didn’t even look at the school because she wanted to compete in gymnastics and Fisk – nor any other HBCU – had a program. Hearing that, Simmons set out to make gymnastics at Fisk happen.

One year later Cromartie is enrolled at Fisk and a member of the very first HBCU gymnastics program in the country. And in less than a month of NCAA competition, the Bulldogs are already leaving their mark on the gymnastics world.

"People are really out there watching us and being motivated by us,” Fisk gymnast Kiarra Richmon said. “We get stopped in the airport and people are like, ‘oh my gosh, are you the HBCU gymnastics team?’ We’re like, ‘yes.” And they’re like, ‘my daughter wants to do gymnastics because of you.’”

“I think the most exciting thing is that we are making history,” Fisk freshman Morgan Price said. “And that we are paving the way for young African American girls who are coming up behind us.”

Launching the first gymnastics program at a traditionally Black university provided an opportunity for the student-athletes on this team that many didn’t even know was possible.

“We were like, ‘a HBCU is starting gymnastics. Is this a serious thing?” Richmon said. “We went to all the serious sources and found it this is for real.”

Most young Black gymnasts spend their training on teams where they are one of just a few minorities, if not the only ones, competing on a team in a sport that is often still considered a “white sport”. Couple that stigma with the significant start-up costs of a gymnastics program and it’s easy to see why HBCUs have been hesitant to field teams.

But when Simmons got Fisk to commit to gymnastics, the school turned to Corrinne Tarver to launch the program. Tarver’s no stranger to making history herself. She was the first Black gymnast at the University of Georgia and later became the first Black NCAA All-Around champion.

When contacted about the opportunity at Fisk, Tarver said her decision was a no-brainer.

“I mean it was an HBCU. I was like, ‘okay.’” Tarver said. “Honestly, a big part of it was just being able to start a program from scratch.”

Her first order of business was to try to convince some of the country’s top gymnasts that a school without a dedicated facility or the fancy resources of an SEC or Big Ten school was a place they should consider.

“It helped that we got some big-name athletes, so people were kind of taking notice right away,” Tarver said.

She landed commitments from a pair of five-star recruits in Price, who grew up in Lebanon, and Richmon, who trained in Atlanta. Soon others would follow.

“The first day we walked on campus as a group there was like eight of us, and we sat in a hotel room and said, ‘okay, we’re going to commit here. We’re not going to commit to a D-1 school,'" Richmon said.

It was the continuation of a recent trend in college athletics, highlighted by Deion Sanders’ football teams at Jackson State and, to a lesser extent Eddie George’s work at Tennessee State, of high-profile high school recruits turning down offers from powerhouse programs to attend traditionally Black schools instead.

“When I saw that I would have the opportunity to come to Fisk and do gymnastics, I knew I wanted to be a part of this team,” Price said. “The coaches and my teammates are amazing and make the whole experience so much more worth it.”

Tarver says she thinks the HBCU renaissance is a reaction within local communities to rally around one another in light of recent societal events. The increased exposure for HBCU athletics made it the right time for a school like Fisk to take the bold steps to launch gymnastics.

And the hope is that Fisk’s early success and notoriety can be proof that challenges in facilities and resources no longer have to be a deterrent to gymnastics at a HBCU.

“My goal is that other HBCUs will see this as a viable option and add (gymnastics),” Tarver said. “And we see that. We’ve already had one school add and I know there are other schools that are considering it. But that’s also going to help the grassroots.”

But for now, Tarver’s content watching her young program make steady progress. The team’s scores have steadily ticked up since their first meet in Las Vegas and, just last Monday, Price became the first Fisk gymnast to win an all-around title at the University of Georgia Quad meet.

Sooner than expected success in competition for a program in its infancy full of pioneers, just like Tarver was before them.

“It’s a full circle,” Tarver said. “To be able to help them to experience some of the amazing things I got to experience is so gratifying as a coach because you always want your athletes to succeed. And really, I’d love for my athletes to exceed me.”

The meet wins will come, but this gym of trailblazers has already left an impact that goes much deeper than any score.

“The legacy of Fisk gymnastics is going to keep growing,” Richmon said. “It’s going to be amazing and you never know, one day we’ll probably be the ones on top.”