With the Southeast Region Coach of the Year leading the way and three team members who qualified for NCAA regionals returning, the Towson University gymnastics team has lofty expectations as it begins its 50th anniversary season.
But even if the team doesn't achieve all of its goals, the culture of service, accountability and togetherness that head coach Vicki May has created has prepared her student-athletes to handle any adversity they might face.
"We are literally with each other from the crack of dawn into the evening almost every single day," said junior Mary Elle Arduino, who nearly qualified for the NCAA national meet a year ago by finishing fifth in the balance beam at the Gainesville Regional. "When you go through all the sweat, blood and tears and spend so much time together, you become a very close-knit team. It's nice to know that everyone has your back. We all have the same goals, came here for the same reasons and are on the same page."
While competing for a strong team at the highest level of collegiate gymnastics played a large part in why most team members chose Towson, the environment created by May also was a big reason that gymnasts from as far away as Santa Monica, Calif., and Smithville, Ontario, committed to her.
"When I visited campus for the first time, a bunch of the team explained how almost every weekend they were out volunteering to help in the community," said senior captain Gabriella Yarussi, also an NCAA regional qualifier a year ago. "My mom and dad brought me up to always want to help others in any way that I can, and I wanted to be that person to continue to help others and be a role model. I love that being at Towson I can continue to do that. It was a big reason why I came here."
May's team has earned a reputation on campus, locally and in the gymnastics community as a group that is well-mannered, scholarly and giving. She sets individual and team academic goals, and the team's GPA consistently ranks high among Towson's intercollegiate teams.
In addition to studying and working out, team members regularly volunteer to help young gymnasts through camps, clinics and other programs, and the team makes frequent visits to local schools to discuss topics such as the importance of good nutrition, academics and setting goals.
May also aligns the team with charitable causes, including breast cancer awareness and the Team Up for 1 Foundation, which pairs children with developmental disabilities and chronic or life-threatening diseases with high school, college and pro teams. Two years ago the team adopted Laneah Whiddon, a young girl with muscular dystrophy.
"We do a lot with the youth in the community," May said. "College is a time for our student-athletes to continue competing in a sport they love. There are no professional gymnastics opportunities for them outside of college. Once they graduate, their careers are over, so I thought it would be good to help them prepare for the real world and for them to experience things that will help them become confident young women as they go out into the workforce."
May drills down into the finer details of life that she feels often are ignored by parents and young people today. She even has rules about not using phones during team meals and waiting for others to get their food before eating.
"I like to think we stress some things that are overlooked with this generation," she said. "I want to make sure they are prepared to do things the right way, like being on time and being able to have hard conversations. If there's something they are afraid to talk to me about and I make them do it, at some point they are they are going to have to approach their boss to have a difficult conversation in the real world."
These lessons are not lost on team members, who often get singled out publicly for their positive actions.
"It's so rewarding being a part of a program like this," Yarussi said. "We get so many different comments wherever we go that not only are we good athletes but we are also good people. We have a very good reputation at school, and that helps you want to do what we do and not complain about volunteering on weekends. It just gives you a great outlook to be able to enjoy helping others and spend time doing it with your teammates."
That extra time spent with teammates creates a special bond, which can be especially important in a team sport that is comprised of many different individual performances.
"When your teammates are cheering for you on the side, you know that they genuinely want what's best for you and the team," Arduino said. "When you aren't having your best day or make a mistake, they are always there to ask what you need and to help you in any way they can. When you are together so much, you can really feel it when you are on the floor how much they all want it for each other."
That's the type of camaraderie the Tigers will need to achieve their ultimate goal, which is to qualify as a team for NCAA regionals for the first time since the program's funding was reduced in the early 2000s. To do so they must finish among the top 36 teams in the nation based on an intricate scoring system after finishing 45th last year.
"It's within reach," May said. "We really need everyone to do their job, compete and complete their skills consistently while trying hard not to fall," May said. "It's hard to get the scores you need when you fall. Of course, we have to stay healthy, but the biggest thing is that they have to believe in themselves."
As much as they believe in each other, believing in themselves as a team shouldn't be a problem.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Towson Athletics