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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Changing perceptions

September 24, 2008

 Meg and Jim Stephenson huddle with their team in a 2005 meet against Iowa State.

Meg and Jim Stephenson huddle with their team in a 2005 meet against Iowa State.
Photos courtesy of U of M Athletics

By Rick Moore

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 each winter 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 16 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 26 years and joined him as co-head coach of the Gophers 11 years ago. "It's a high-level, high-commitment sport."

That commitment extends to academics, as well. The team typically comes in with an average GPA of 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 of their name. (In addition to the classroom success, the team also won the Big Ten championship in 1998 and 2006.) 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.

The committee hosts 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.

The long-term aim is to bridge the gap between academics and athletics, 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."

A sport for 'Type A's

Back in their modest, 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.)

"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.

"The presentation you see with collegiate athletes only comes with the experience you get from 15 to 18 years [in the sport]," Jim adds.

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."