The school year had just begun when the rumors swirled around campus, eventually making their way to the women’s gymnastics team. It was September 2010, and Cal’s athletic department was considering dropping gymnastics.
During a week of speculation, then-freshmen Alicia Asturias and Dallas Crawford did not think their team would be affected. Reassurances from their coach and fan support for the program allayed their fears.
But Sep. 28, Asturias and Crawford received a text from their coach during a morning class. Everyone was summoned to the gym immediately.
Trudging over to their practice gym, Asturias and Crawford had no idea what would happen next. They joined their teammates and sat in a circle together waiting for head coach Cari Dubois. The two remember Dubois walked in without making eye contact with her players. She was bright red.
“We’re sitting down and she just goes, ‘We’re cut,’ and she starts to cry,” Asturias says.
The team would compete during the 2011 season in the spring but would be dropped after the end of the academic year.
In their dorm room later that day, Asturias and Crawford pondered what had just occurred and felt helpless. With high expectations to change a program that finished in the bottom half of the conference every single year, Asturias and Crawford were now faced with just one year to make an impact.
“It went from, ‘We need to change it for the rest of our career’ to, ‘We need to change it now,’ ” Crawford says. “And make it happen this year, because this might be the only opportunity that we have.”
Just months after the program received the news it would be cut, and weeks into what Asturias and Crawford thought would be their one and only season, the team received welcomed news.
The same day the Bears were competing in a dual meet at Arizona State, university administration announced an update on the fate of the women’s gymnastics program. Dubois gave each of her gymnasts the opportunity to hear whether the team would be reinstated. Asturias, reticent at first, went to her coach’s hotel room and officially heard the news: Women’s gymnastics was one of three sports reinstated due to an outpouring of financial support.
Less than two weeks after the team was reinstated, however, Dubois announced she would be retiring as head coach at the end of the season. Danna Durante, an associate head coach at Nebraska, was soon hired on to take over.
Immediately, Durante brought change. She demanded greater accountability — even required the team to sign a contract showing their commitment level — and physical fitness from her gymnasts. Incrementally, the women started to show improvement. The 2012 team finished with an average score almost a point higher than the previous season, and two gymnasts competed in the NCAA Regionals.
“It was exactly what we needed for our program to shutdown, reboot and hopefully start emerging as a new Cal gymnastics,” Crawford says. “It was a huge step that we needed to move forward and start rebuilding our program.”
A month after the end of the 2012 season, Asturias and Crawford were vacationing in Hawaii. Finally, they thought at the time, the roller coaster was over. That was until they received a text. Durante was resigning to become the head coach at the University of Georgia.
Once again, the program was without a coach. A month later, in June 2012, Justin Howell, an assistant to Durante the previous year, was hired as head coach.
In his first year as head coach, Howell pushed the fitness of his gymnasts to a greater level. Howell also incorporated a spin class three days a week and sustained the tough training schedule throughout the season. He also put a greater emphasis on nutrition and building a cohesive team. A preseason bonding trip to Sea Ranch in Sonoma County, California, was a way of increasing team unity and accountability.
“Everyone that first year bought in,” Howell says. “Slowly but surely, they started to build.”
The new approach was followed by results. The 2013 squad pulled of one its most successful seasons in program history. Cal made its first appearance at the NCAA regional since 2007, and Howell was named Pac-12 coach of the year.
Midway through the Pac-12 women’s gymnastics championships this March, Asturias stepped to the balance beam for what was a make-or-break event.
She and her teammates were already on pace to finish in the top five at the conference championships, which featured some of the best individual gymnasts and teams in the country.
It was fitting that she was leading off for her team. The senior was Cal’s best all-around performer and one of its most experienced. But she had had a troubled history on the beam. For three years, she competed in this event in the final all-conference competition but had struggled each and every time. This attempt, she hoped, would be different.
“And I go up, and I hit one of the best routines I’ve ever done,” Asturias says. “As luck would have, look we did exactly what we do in practice, which is hit routine after routine. And it was incredible.”
When Asturias’ beam routine at the Pac-12 championships was complete, she was awarded a 9.8 score out of 10. One by one, the Cal women completed their beam routines. Charlie Owens followed with another 9.8. Serena Leong finished with a 9.9. And Jessica Howe another 9.9. The total was the second-highest beam score in program history.
The Bears followed up with the final event of the evening: the floor exercise. After one teammate stepped out of bounds and a stumble by another, Crystal Paz nailed her landing, securing a third-place finish for the Bears, ahead of six-time national champion UCLA by .025 points.
For the first time, Cal finished higher than fifth at the Pac-12 women’s gymnastics championships. Crawford and Asturias would go on to compete in the NCAA championships — the first time since 1994 Cal sent at least one gymnast to the championships.
“It came together on the most epic of stages,” Asturias says. “For me, that was the best moment.”
Contact Stephen Hobbs at [email protected].