Maryland gymnastics just finished one of its most successful seasons ever. The Terps posted a 21-8 record, their most wins since 2011 and their best winning percentage since 2013. They returned to the NCAA Championships field after a two-year hiatus and finished fourth at the Raleigh regional, coming in ahead of two top-20 teams in the process. Maryland’s Regional Qualifying Score (RQS) in Raleigh was 195.850, its highest postseason team score ever.
This was a young squad, with 10 of 16 gymnasts being either freshmen or sophomores and several of those underclassmen holding significant roles. Freshman Audrey Barber was a First Team All-Big Ten selection, while sophomore Alicia Farina was named to the league’s second team. The Terps’ success also earned head coach Brett Nelligan Big Ten Coach of the Year. This was Nelligan’s eighth season leading the Terps; he took over in 2010 for his father Bob, who had coached Maryland since 1979.
I caught up with the younger Nelligan in his office Tuesday afternoon to discuss Maryland’s season, the broader world of college gymnastics and what’s next for him and his team. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Testudo Times: You guys went 21-8 this year, 6-4 in the Big Ten, made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. Those are the facts. What’s your assessment?
Brett Nelligan: The facts and the assessment are pretty close. When you’re putting the team together, I thought that all those things were possible, but in the back of my head I knew we were young, so you just never know. But they did it. They did everything I asked them to do, they did everything I would have hoped for. So they’ve lived up to and in some cases exceeded my expectations.
TT: What was different about this team than teams from the last couple years?
Nelligan: This team, we’ve talked about it all year, about how young we are, but their mentality, they were fearless, they were aggressive, they were tough, and that really suited them well, especially when we were in Big Ten play. You have to be so tough and fearless in some of these meets, and they didn’t back down against any team, and I think that’s really what pushed us forward.
TT: You mentioned how young of a team it is. Is that something that happens by accident, or is it just how sometimes recruiting cycles kind of ebb and flow? What factors go into that?
Nelligan: It is the recruiting cycles, how they ebb and flow. If you look back, the last time we were really successful, we had two All-Americans in Katy Dodds and Steph Giameo and those guys, but we graduated six kids all at once back then. So we finally cycled around to this class, and they just kind of lumped together. We had all the freshmen and sophomores. Like you said, it’s kind of just the recruiting cycle we’re on right now, but yeah, you don’t draw it up this way. You certainly don’t draw up four freshmen in your beam lineup. You certainly don’t draw up having a freshman anchor on two events. But it is what it is, and it worked, so we went with it.
TT: What’s the recruiting pitch for bringing kids to Maryland?
Nelligan: Help me build something. Some of these kids are good enough to go anywhere in the country, but you can go somewhere and just be another person who went there, another member of that team. But if you come here, you can build something. You can do something that no one else has ever done. Like this year, this team set the highest score ever for a NCAA regional competition. A lot of other schools, you might not be able to say that. So for me, that’s the pitch. It’s “Come here, help me build something, do something that previous teams have never done before.”
TT: When you’re recruiting, how do you balance local versus regional and national? What’s the scene for that compared to in football, where there’s so much local talent? What’s the landscape like?
Nelligan: Sure, there’s a ton of local talent here as well, but we’ll go anywhere. I want great gymnasts with great attitudes, great work ethics, that are tough and fearless. And if we have to go to California or Florida to get them, that’s fine with me. There are those kids around here too, and we’d love to keep them in-state. I want more in-state kids. But really, we’ll go anywhere to get the best kid.
TT: One thing I’ve always wondered is, how do college gymnastics fit into the larger sport, especially a sport where so many of the best at it are so young? Where does the college level fall in someone’s career?
Nelligan: So generally, if you were gonna make the Olympics, you generally would go to college after, if you don’t go pro. There have been a few gymnasts that went to college and did Olympics afterwards, but it’s very rare. Because as you said, you’re kind of at your peak elite level at 16, 17, 18, so I would say it’s after, but it’s a different brand of gymnastics. It’s team gymnastics. It’s exciting. The elite level is very individual—even team meets are still very individual and it’s very serious—whereas gymnastics in college, it’s a blast. It’s exciting, big crowds, being on the Big Ten Network and being on ESPN, it’s a blast.
TT: For the people that haven’t tuned in, haven’t been there, what’s going on during a meet, what goes into it and what’s your role in all of it as a coach?
Nelligan: First of all, shame on them, right? Next year, you gotta get yourself to a gymnastics meet. It’s a blast.
So the way it works is, we put up six, they put up six, you count your best five on every event and then you add the scores up. It’s so exciting. Sometimes it comes down to the very last competitor on the very last event to find out if you’re gonna win or not.
And what am I doing during the meet? We pick the lineups beforehand, so I’m really just talking to them before each routine, reminding them just a few cues, things I want them to think about as they’re going through a routine to keep them focused, and then I’m just there to be part of it after that.
TT: When you say things to think about, are those usually technical or are they just approach?
Nelligan: Yeah, technical. My main event that I coach is bars, so I just give them last-minute reminders such as “don’t forget to bring your toes up on your dismount” or “nice and tight on your shootover.” Just little reminders so that they’ll stay in order of their skills and so that they’ll hopefully do them the best they can.
TT: It’s a sport where you put 194, 195 points on the board and you win or lose by a tenth of a point. It looks like there’s such a thin line. How thin really is the margin between being good and being great, or winning and losing?
Nelligan: It’s extremely thin. I mean, last year we missed NCAA regionals by .01. That’s one hundredth of a point. Everything is so razor thin, and that makes it stressful at times, because there’s always that feeling like you have to be perfect. That’s one of the things I told them this year: “Don’t try to be perfect, just try to be a little bit tougher than the other team.” Because you’re never gonna have a perfect meet, the goal is to just save as many of those tenths as you can and hopefully they’re enough to beat whoever you’re up against.
TT: Is it a sport where it’s always clear who the best team is?
Nelligan: I would say no. That’s one thing that’s great about the sport, that’s why you play the game. There were meets this year that on paper, it didn’t look like we were gonna win, but we won them anyway. We beat five top-25 teams. So that’s what’s great about sports.
TT: Going off that, when you were at regionals, what really separates teams like LSU and Nebraska, those top-10 teams, from your team or the other teams that didn’t make it out if there?
Nelligan: They have a little more difficulty than us in certain areas. I think we’re very comparable to them on bars, they had a little more difficulty than us on floor and vault. And then they had another level of polish that we’re getting closer to. And that comes from a more experienced team—we’re very young—and having that confidence and comfortability with your skills that you can really perform them and have that polish without being cautious or nervous, and then that comes through to the judges and then your scores are higher.
TT: Obviously your goal as a program is to get to that level. What will be the biggest hurdles in that process?
Nelligan: So the polish and things like that, I think we can always improve. I’d like to improve our difficulty level, and I think we are on the path to that. We have some good recruits coming in as well. So those are the two hurdles, and then as always, staying healthy, keeping focused, getting stronger, getting more physically fit, and then a little bit of luck.
TT: This is the part where I’d ask how you became a college gymnastics coach, but I know your dad was a college gymnastics coach. How did Maryland gymnastics become such a part of your life and your family?
Nelligan: Originally, I didn’t want to coach gymnastics. I came here to help my father but to go to grad school. So I did my MBA while I was here, and then I was gonna leave. I was gonna go get a corporate-world job or something. But you just get hooked. And then we started to do well, we started to find a little success, and the program has been moving in the right direction for a few years, then all of a sudden you’re a head coach one day.
My dad really gave so much of his life to this school and to the program. My mom worked here, she worked in the academic support unit. My sister was on the gymnastics team here. I grew up here, he would take me to the gym every day, it just became part of our lives. And then I’m carrying on that tradition. I feel like if you’re gonna be successful at something, it has to be part of your whole life. I don’t take this as a job that I just go to from 9 to 5 and then I go home. This is part of my life. My wife will have the team over and cook dinner for them, and my daughters will come to the gym, and it’s a part of our lives. I feel like for me, that’s the only way that I’m ever truly gonna be successful, is if I make it part of my everyday.
TT: With the season over now, what would you say is your plan, what do you know you’re gonna be doing for the next month, semester, and then plan for the year and beyond?
Nelligan: So two things, one is what’s our plan, what are we doing with the team, and then what are we doing recruiting. This is recruiting time. I hit the road on Thursday, so I’m home for three days and then recruiting starts. We have Junior Olympic regionals are on Thursday, so I’ll be there to watch all of our commits and looking for new ones.
And the team, we gave them a little time off. We gave them completely off this week. Next week, they’ll start conditioning again, and the week after that we’ll get back in the gym, and then we’ll meet with them one-on-one and start talking about ways we can improve for next year. How can you increase your difficulty? How can we increase our polish and perfection, and really already start planning for next year?