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Meg and Jim Stephenson talk to their women's gymnastics team in a huddle.

Meg and Jim Stephenson huddle with their team in a 2005 meet against Iowa State. Entering this season, the Stephensons had a record of 136-103-1 as co-head coaches of the Gophers, including two Big Ten championships (1998 and 2006).

Changing perceptions

U initiative strives to build campus community around Gopher athletics

By Rick Moore

March 6, 2007; updated March 20

In a nondescript building on the Twin Cities campus where the historic Knoll District meets University Avenue, a group of dedicated, if not obsessive, student-athletes trains for one of the University's most demanding sports.

It's here in Peik Gym that the women's gymnastics team, under the guidance of co-head coaches Jim and Meg Stephenson, grinds through four-hour practices up to five times a week.

It's not a sport for those who thirst for immediate gratification. "It takes us a good four months to get into shape to do a routine that [might] last 25 seconds," says Jim Stephenson, who has been coaching the Gophers for 15 years.

In addition to tapping every muscle in their bodies, there's also the requisite mental toughness--the ability to "stay in a zone at a really high level," says Meg Stephenson, who has been coaching with her husband for 25 years and joined him as co-head coach of the Gophers 10 years ago. "It's really a unique high-level, high-commitment sport."

That commitment extends to academics, as well. The team had a 3.2 GPA last fall, and typically comes in at 3.0 or higher--the Stephensons' standard for success.

Bridging the academic-athletic divide

Women's gymnastics is one of many sports at the U in which the student-athletes are successful in both aspects--student and athlete--of their moniker. (In addition to the classroom success, the team also won the Big Ten championship last season.) Yet there is a lingering perception that student-athletes are far less dedicated to achieving an education than they are to their sport.

At the University, that perception was likely exacerbated by the academic fraud scandal of 1999. But the U is certainly not alone in dealing with this issue. "For 100 years, there's been a divide between the academic side of [a] university and the sports culture," says Jim.

Some people at the U are eager to change that perception. In 2004 the U Senate's Advisory Committee on Athletics created a Subcommittee on Campus and Community Relations. Its goals are twofold: to build and enhance support on campus among faculty, staff, students, U departments, alumni and Gopher fans; and to increase awareness of Gopher Athletics' contribution to the campus and community.

"Our media tend to go berserk on the bad news, and there's so much good news--especially in athletics--but it doesn't get out there," Meg Stephenson says. "I think the University and the community would rally around athletics much more if they knew the great stories."

The committee is hosting twice-yearly lunches where coaches of all sports are invited to meet with chosen faculty to address issues of common concern. It has also spearheaded special deals for faculty and staff to attend select Gopher sporting events this year.

The long-term aim is to bridge the gap between the academic and athletic sides of the University, and perhaps increase attendance by staff at Gopher sporting events along the way.

"While there still is a lot of work that needs to be done, we're finding that the efforts are being well-received," says Vickie Courtney, the U Senate office coordinator who is managing the initiative. "The coaches have been very supportive of the initiative and want to connect with the academic side of the University."

Earlier in the academic year there were special events for women's soccer, men's basketball and men's gymnastics. And on Feb. 24, faculty and staff were offered the chance to attend the women's gymnastics meet for free.

A sport for 'Type A's

A few hundred fans braved the first of the two recent snowstorms to watch the Gopher gymnasts take on Iowa, and Meg points out that home meets typically draw between 1,500-2,200 fans. While the No. 24 Hawkeyes prevailed 194.625 to 193.950, Minnesota turned in its highest scores of the season on vault (48.700) and floor (49.125) in a highly entertaining meet.

The following weekend, the Gophers tallied their highest score of the year (195.350) in defeating both Iowa and No. 10 Iowa State in a tri-meet on March 4.

Deals for faculty and staff

There are two remaining special offers for U faculty and staff to Gopher athletic events:

>> On Saturday, March 24, the baseball team hosts the University of Hartford at 2 p.m. at the Metrodome. Discounted tickets are available for faculty and staff for $3 at the U of M Bookstore in Coffman Union or the ticket office in Mariucci Arena. Coach John Anderson and his staff will hold a free baseball clinic for children ages 7 to 17 on the Metrodome field from 11:15 to 12:15. To RSVP for the children's clinic, e-mail baseball@umn.edu.

>> On Saturday, April 14, the softballl team hosts Purdue at noon at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium. Admission is free for faculty and staff with a U card; $3.00 tickets for family and friends can be purchased in advance at the U of M Bookstore in Coffman Union or at the stadium on game day. A special one-hour clinic for kids 12 and under will be held after the game; to register, email Deb Diamond at diamo010@umn.edu.

These offers have been made available through a joint initiative of U governance and athletics.

Back in their cozy office in the basement of Peik Gym, the Stephensons talk about why they love coaching their sport, especially at Minnesota.

"It's a magnet for perfectionist kids," Jim says. ("'Type A's," Meg interjects.) "And to have a gym full of those is a unique situation."

"What we love about collegiate gymnastics is that it's a women's form of gymnastics," says Meg, explaining that the artistry is much more mature than in youth gymnastics.

"You seldom see that capability in a young athlete," Jim adds. "The presentation you see with collegiate athletes only comes with the experience you get from 15 to 18 years of gymnastics."

They point out that there's an emphasis for coaches to bring in top academic performers who also happen to play sports. "We really recruit kids who are interested in getting a degree," Meg says.

"We know that with the help they get here through academic services, they can succeed," she adds. "We can't speak enough about the support they get as athletes. And they should get it. They have a full-time job representing the University."

And if the U Senate's initiative can help spread the word about the wonderful things happening with student-athletes at the U, the Stephensons will be thrilled.

"Our media tend to go berserk on the bad news, and there's so much good news--especially in athletics--but it doesn't get out there," Meg says. "I think the University and the community would rally around athletics much more if they knew the great stories."


The women's gymnastics team has one remaining home meet. On Saturday, March 24, the Gophers take on West Virginia at 6 p.m. at the Sports Pavilion.

Related reading: U of M aims to improve student-athlete academic performance Jim Molinari: a love of teaching A strong rebound: Athletic compliance program is raising the bar