DU gymnastics’ scores are up and the program is breaking records just in time to host NCAA regionals this weekend
It’s the first step on the road to a national championship.
The University of Denver’s gymnastics team has set a number of program records this year, including top scores on three of the four events — vault, balance beam and floor.
On top of that, the team has set an all-time high score on all events combined and a ton of personal bests for individual athletes.
But for head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, one of her favorite records from this season is one people rarely ask about: the home meet attendance record.
In January, DU hosted number one-ranked University of Oklahoma to a sold-out crowd of almost 6,500 fans. For Kutcher-Rinehart, who has coached at DU since 1999, it’s a far cry from when she first started, when the team performed in a field house with some fans in the bleachers. After maxing out a gym with around 2,500 seats, they now perform at Magness Arena, which also hosts DU’s basketball and hockey teams.
“There’s an athleticism, there’s a beauty and grace to it, and an elegance to it. It has this component of flexibility and artistry, but it also has this power and dynamic and strength to it,” Kutcher-Rinehart said about why she thinks people enjoy spectating.
The record represents a sport growing in popularity, beyond national interest every four years during the Olympics. One reason could be the new NCAA rules which allow student athletes to profit off sponsorships for the first time. It’s led to more Olympic gymnasts competing at the college level, potentially raising the profile of college gymnastics as a whole.
Then there’s the work Kutcher-Rinehart and coaches before her have put into partnering with local gymnastics, dance and cheerleading clubs, growing broadcast opportunities and social media.
Now, the broken records and growing fan base are coming to a head this weekend, as DU hosts NCAA regionals. It’s the first step for teams looking to win the national championships, and will feature high profile gymnasts from across the country. After a record fourth-place finish in 2019, followed by COVID-19 and some injuries, Kutcher-Rinehart said the team feels like it’s back at full strength.
The goal this weekend? “Bring their best self,” she said.
On the Tuesday before regionals, the DU team practiced every step of its routines. In a sport often decided by mere decimal points, it all matters.
They start with synchronized leaps, handstands, flips and backflips — and that’s just the warm-up. Then gymnasts split to practice skills and routines on all four events that make up a meet: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. People vault into foam pits, do handstands on bars eight feet off the ground and flip across a balance beam four feet high and four inches wide. It’s all occasionally punctuated by a “Let’s go DU!” cheer and a great workout playlist.
Both Lynnzee Brown and Jessica Hutchinson have gotten perfect 10s from judges this year; Hutchinson on balance beam and floor and Brown on floor. Their floor routines are around 80 seconds of flipping and dancing, all set to music. Hutchinson’s is adapted from her mother’s floor routine, which her mother performed while representing Bulgaria at the 1992 Olympics.
At practice, Brown runs through her routine, set to Fifth Harmony and Beyoncé. It’s a tribute to DU alums Nina McGee and Nikole Addison.
“I just want to be a legacy,” Brown said. “The legacy of Brown girls at DU, it’s a PWI [Predominantly White Institution], so just being here and showing up as your authentic self is something that I really take pride in. I don’t take it lightly. So I was inspired by two Black gymnasts before me and hopefully I’ll pass it on to future gymnasts to come.”
The routine has been a long time coming for Brown, who won an NCAA title on the event in 2019 and has broken a range of records at DU (in addition to touring with Simone Biles in 2021). But COVID-19 and two injuries cut short three seasons. Now she’s a grad student, and it’s her sixth and final year on the team and her third full competition season.
“I’m just super proud of everyone hitting their stride,” she said. “It’s such a talented team, the most I’ve seen in all my six years. So I’m just honored to be on a team that is really pushing the greatness to the next level.”
The team also hosts a handful of Colorado locals.
Athlete-turned-volunteer coach Mia Sundstrom grew up in Boulder and looked up to the DU team her whole life.
“I grew up watching the Denver gymnastics team and dreaming of being on it one day, and so for me that part of it was a dream come true,” she said.
On the current team, there’s Rylie Mundell, who recently won a conference title on vault, from Parker, Colorado. Mia Hebinck grew up in Lone Tree, and Victoria Fitts is from Fort Collins. Fitts is a senior, and has seen the team bounce back from high excitement and viewership in 2019, through the pandemic, and back with even more energy this year.
“It’s just so exciting to see, now that we can have as many people, how many people are supporting us right now,” Fitts said. “The energy has been incredible.”
The team hopes to continue that energy through regionals, which runs Thursday through Sunday and will be streamed on ESPN+.
In addition to the depth of talent DU brings, top gymnasts across the country are coming to Denver this weekend to compete. There’s number-three ranked University of Michigan, who won the championship in 2021. Oregon State is bringing Olympic medalist and top ranked Jade Carey, while number-six Louisiana State University is bringing range of gymnasts who have competed on the national and international stage.
“This is one of the reasons I’m actually just genuinely excited for this upcoming weekend,” Kutcher-Rinehart said. “It’s some of the best gymnastics in the country.”
Two of the nine teams competing this weekend will advance to the next round in the competition for the national championship. DU is currently ranked 13th, but in gymnastics, that means just a few decimal points. After breaking its all-time score record, DU should be right in there.
“I think it’s gonna come down to who performs on that given day and night,” Kutcher-Rinehart said.
You can find information on how to attend the regional competition by clicking here.