On April 13, 2016, the Cal women’s gymnastics team traveled more than 1,000 miles, stepped off a plane and took in the fresh air of Forth Worth, Texas. The Bears knew they had entered rare territory and were taking it all in — much deserved after qualifying for the NCAA Championships for the first time in 24 years. Cal would finish the tournament as the seventh-best team in the nation, capping off what was by far the most successful season in school history.
The Bears’ success was unprecedented considering where the program was not too long ago.
It had only been five years since Cal’s head coach Justin Howell joined the team as an assistant, walking into a program that was, to say the least, in dire straits. The Bears had failed to reach the NCAA Regionals for the fifth consecutive season and finished in sixth place at the Pac-12 Championships in 2011.
But the story of Cal’s resurgence as a program first began at Airborne Gymnastics, a highly competitive gymnastics club located in Santa Clara, California. As the head coach of Airborne Gymnastics since 1997, Howell made a name for himself as one of the most respected coaches in the Bay Area. It was at Airborne where he discovered his love for coaching, realizing the positive impact he could have on his gymnasts.
“Once we were serious about spending our lives together, we talked a lot about coaching college with one another.” We always envisioned that as something we wanted to do together.”
— Justin Howell, Cal women’s gymnastics head coach
“My role really shifted from being a technical gymnastics coach to being a person that was helping young ladies develop into responsible adults,” Howell said.
It was also during his early coaching years in Santa Clara that Howell met Cal’s current assistant coach, and his wife, Liz Crandall Howell.
As the only Brevet-level judge in Northern California, Liz was constantly evaluating Justin’s pupils, while also offering advice. Justin found the advice she offered invaluable, because being a Brevet judge meant Liz was capable of judging any elite meet in the world.
She vividly remembers the type of discipline Justin instilled in his team, a characteristic that she recalls being evident every time they walked into competition.
“They were like an army every time they went into meets. They were taking equipment here and there that sometimes didn’t even belong to them,” Liz said. “But they just didn’t care, it was all about doing what they needed to do to succeed.”
Liz, however, eventually realized that coaching was also a passion of her own. Her coaching career began in 1998 as head coach and team director of Woodland Gymnastics, a nonprofit gymnastics youth club located in Woodland, California.
Like Justin, Liz quickly grew infatuated with the effect her coaching had on the lives of so many gymnasts. It was this love for coaching that kept her at Woodland until 2003, while also being an assistant coach at Sacramento State from 2001 to 2003. Her love of the sport kept her at a small market, enjoying the process of simply coaching girls of all ages and experiences.
“I come from the side where in my family everybody is on a trampoline going crazy and falling from the time you’re born. Let them try it and fall, because there’s some learning that can only take place by trying the bigger skill.”
— Liz Crandall Howell, Cal assistant coach, and wife of Justin Howell
As a player’s coach, Liz adds a very unique and comprehensive perspective to those she coaches because, like them, she once competed at a high level when she was a member of BYU’s gymnastics team. Her personal gymnastics career achievements include being a seven-time U.S. National Team member from 1987 to 1992. She also earned a silver medal with the 1991 World Championships Team and competed at the Olympic Trials the following year in 1992.
Liz was the perfect coach to join Justin at Airborne and he offered her a position the minute one was available. He knew that her personal experiences as a gymnast would give her the tools needed to coach at a high level and would prove invaluable to relating to the athletes.
What he didn’t expect, however, was for them to fall in love.
“It’s very hard to find someone who’s also so passionate about something that they don’t think it’s crazy,” Liz said. “You don’t find that kind of connection every day, and when we first started coaching together we quickly realized we shared other common interests as well.”
It was during their first few months of coaching together that they began dating, with their love of gymnastics springboarding the relationship.
As a couple, in and out of the gym, Justin and Liz would quickly become a dynamic duo. They both worked tenaciously every day, sending their top Airborne gymnasts to Division 1 programs. All of this work supported a club that was recently ranked No. 1 in Northern California. Still, the Howells had even greater aspirations than coaching club, and they shared the common dream of coaching college together.
“Once we were serious about spending our lives together, we talked a lot about coaching college with one another,” Justin said. “We always envisioned that as something we wanted to do together.”
“It’s very hard to find someone who’s also so passionate about something that they don’t think it’s crazy. You don’t find that kind of connection every day, and when we first started coaching together we quickly realized we shared other common interests as well.”
— Liz Howell
Fortunately for the Howells, four years of co-head coaching a top national club meant they were a proven model in the eyes of many schools. But to do that, one of them had to make the jump first. They made the tough decision that it would be best for Justin to take the single open assistant coaching position at Cal.
“It was difficult to sever that tie for that first year and kind of have these unknowns,” Justin said. “Typically in college gymnastics you have to put in your time as an assistant coach, and you don’t really know where you’re going to land, you kind of have to go where the opportunities may be.”
For their first time as a couple, the Howells were now physically split up and questioned if they were making the right decision. While Liz continued to coach at Airborne, Justin tightly grasped to one half of their eventual end goal, hoping to one day professionally reunite with his better half.
“That first year when I was still at Airborne and he was at Cal was something very difficult for both of us,” Liz said. “We were both without that other side that we had become so comfortable with. Being separated for that year made us realize how much we appreciated coaching with one another.”
Luckily for the star-crossed coaches, their abilities continued to open doors. In 2012, Justin was offered Cal’s head coaching position after former coach Dana Duarte took an open position at Georgia.
Upon happily accepting, Justin understood that solving the inner turmoil of the team was step one. The program had been cut just two years prior, only to be reinstated after generous support from donors and the community. Justin knew he needed to produce results, because next time they might not be so generous.
When Justin arrived, the girls were doing backflips on eggshells, trying to perform their best with the unnecessary added pressure of knowing the program would be cut for good if they failed to turn it around.
“The program needed a lot of TLC — the girls that were on the team had been through a lot,” Justin said. “They’d been through a number of different coaches as well as the program being cut, so they weren’t even sure if they’d be able to do gymnastics. I can’t even imagine the myriad of emotions they were going through.”
Justin was used to facing adversity, but even he realized that to change the culture of an entire team, he needed to first gain the trust of his girls. That’s when he called in the best help he knew, his wife Liz, to be his assistant in late 2012 — the opportunity to reunite with his wife and fulfill their dream of coaching college together was just too good to pass up.
“We didn’t really expect our career paths to join together again in college for quite a number of years,” Justin said. “And we were well aware that it might even be somewhere else at some point. We were fortunate to really do what we wanted to do in a short amount of time.”
The excitement of coaching a college team together, and fulfilling a dream, was something Liz couldn’t hide.
“When it happened so quickly, we were just so excited that the opportunity was at Cal, and everything just happened perfectly,” Liz said. “To come in and change a program’s expectations was not going to be easy, but fortunately it was welcomed, our athletes were grateful and totally invested.”
From that moment, Cal’s team has fed off the energy of their coaches, creating a contagious and undeniable sense of family throughout the entire roster. And, just like parents, the two coaches have vastly different coaching styles in the gym. Justin prefers to focus on the smallest mistakes in a girl’s routine, sometimes not allowing a girl to move on or try something harder until the details and fundamentals are perfect.
Liz, on the other hand, prefers for a girl to perform an entire routine and even fall if it comes to that. She thinks more on her feet and outside the box, finding that lessons can be learned in unlikely places. She developed this unique and somewhat unconventional style during her childhood, when her entire family would go all out on a backyard trampoline.
“I come from the side where in my family everybody is on a trampoline going crazy and falling from the time you’re born,” Liz said. “Let them try it and fall, because there’s some learning that can only take place by trying the bigger skill.”
Through that infectious vibe of community, therefore, it would again be on the bedrock of the Howells’ relationship that excellence found root, and the rising powerhouse of Cal gymnastics was fully conceived.
“My role really shifted from being a technical gymnastics coach to being a person that was helping young ladies develop into responsible adults.”
— Justin Howell
Last season, both members of the power couple were awarded for revitalizing an entire program, sweeping NCAA National Coach of the Year honors. Justin was voted as NACGC/W National Head Coach of the Year, while Liz was voted Assistant Coach of the Year.
Today, there’s a certain magic to watching the Howells coach: treating their girls more as their children then their athletes. And, like family, the girls look up to them for inspiration and encouragement. All you need to do is ask anyone on the team.
“Justin and Liz are the most supportive coaches I’ve ever been with, they really know how to interact with us as gymnasts on a personal level,” said senior Jessica Howe. “I definitely feel like the team is a family more than anything, we’re always there for each other in and outside of the gym.”
Since being at Cal, the Howells have fulfilled their dream of coaching college together, and now have their eyes set on even bigger aspirations. Not just for themselves, but for their athletes. Their girls.
And as the family grew together, one member of it stood out more than any other — Toni Ann Williams. This summer, Williams will be competing at the Rio Olympics as the first woman gymnast to ever represent Jamaica at the games. Justin will be tagging along as Jamaica’s gymnastics coach, acting as Williams’ personal coach through the hectic whirlwind that is the international stage.
The eyes of the world will be cast onto Williams, but the ones watching with the most anticipation and excitement from the sidelines and back home will be her teammates and the Howells. Her family.
Contact Alex Quintana at [email protected].