The Colonials’ season came to a close two weeks ago in their first NCAA Regionals appearance since 2002.
A team that head coach Margie Foster-Cunningham said had “hung in there for years as an academic institution” competed on national television in front of thousands in a cavernous arena at the University of Auburn in Alabama.
Only Auburn and Alabama, both top-10 teams, advanced to the NCAA Tournament from the event. But the Colonials finished one of the best seasons in program history at 22-8-1.
They were spurred by a crop of high-profile rookies who came to GW in part because of an increase in funding for the gymnastics program under athletic director Patrick Nero.
“That money allows us to be in the game with the best students and the best athletes, and that’s what you’re seeing here. It’s a different recruiting game for us now with that money,” Foster-Cunningham said. “You’re seeing what fully funding a sport can do. I don’t know how to say it any other way.”
The program has increased the number of scholarships it can offer from six to 12 since Nero came to GW in 2011. Last season was the first year the team gave out 12 scholarships.
The money helped attract high-caliber talent like Jillian Winstanley, who was named the East Atlantic Gymnastics League Rookie of the Year.
Freshmen were responsible for 14 of GW’s 25 recorded scores at the NCAA Regionals. One of them, Cami Drouin-Allaire, advanced individually to the NCAA Tournament with a score of 39.175. She became the first All-American in GW Gymnastics history at the end of the regular season. She was named to the All-American regular season second team, which means she ranks between the ninth and 16th best gymnasts in the country.
Drouin-Allaire particularly excelled in vault. She posted a near-perfect season-high 9.95 on vault twice, first against Towson on March 15 to help the Colonials set an all-around program record with a score of 196.875, and also at the EAGL Championships on March 22, which the Colonials won for the first time in program history.
The Colonials’ narrow edging of the University of New Hampshire at the EAGL Championships came down to their entirely underclassman bar lineup, including four freshmen.
As they hit their routines, the four senior members of the squad watched their younger teammates fight for the title that would define their senior season, and erupted into cheers when they realized they had done it.
“We all just started crying. It was amazing. It was truly a championship moment that you dream about, and for me, that was the best moment of my gymnastics career,” senior Elena Corcoran said. “We worked so hard all year, and to go in and prove that this team is really different than it has been in years past at GW. It was really amazing.”
Freshmen replaced upperclassmen gymnasts in lineups throughout the season. The oldest gymnast to compete the entire season in the all-around was Chelsea Raineri, a sophomore. But Foster-Cunningham said the seniors still had the ears of the underclassmen on the team, even if they were producing flashier results compared to their older teammates.
“The seniors are like that map you look at when you walk into the mall and it says, ‘Here you are, where do you want to go?’” Foster-Cunningham said. “The seniors know how to read that map. The freshmen really are learning those things so I value my upperclassmen greatly.”
The season may be over, but the team’s rise seems likely to continue. There’s more talent coming in: Foster-Cunningham referenced a recent commitment but couldn’t name names because the athlete hadn’t signed yet. And this year’s young standouts have already benefitted from a year’s experience in college.
“I’ve been here for 30 years, but this is the beginning,” Foster-Cunningham said. “We’ve been building this for a really long time, and Patrick [Nero] and President Knapp kind of came along at the right time. We’re ready for this and we have the foundation to do it, and now we’ve got the athletes and it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”