New Tigers In Town – Clemson Gymnastics Breaks Ground 

By Ashlee Buhler, Christy Sandmaier contributing 

Purple and orange leotards decked out with bling, a brand new training facility overlooking Lake Hartwell, the plan to pack Littlejohn Coliseum, fielding the first team; it’s all in the works at Clemson University in preparation for the inaugural season of women’s gymnastics in 2024. 

The opportunity to launch a new college gymnastics program doesn’t come by very often, let alone at one of the top public universities in the country. It also comes with a great deal of responsibility to offer its student athletes the best possible experience and opportunities to grow as people. Clemson has added its name to a small but exclusive list, becoming one of only seven schools who have launched (or intend to launch) a gymnastics program in the last twenty years.  

Five of those seven have come within just the last two years. Long Island University had its first competition season in 2021, becoming the first gymnastics program to launch since Lindenwood in 2011. Simpson, Fisk and Greenville are slated to begin their seasons in 2023, while Clemson is targeting 2024. It’s a monumental time in the sport, as these programs not only create more opportunities for aspiring college gymnasts, but more exposure to the sport on various college campuses around the country. 

However, the impact Clemson could have goes beyond mere exposure. It’s been a long time—just over 20 years to be exact—since a school from one of the Power 5 conferences (SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10 and ACC) has added gymnastics to its lineup of sports teams. The last time it happened was in 2001 when Mark Cook and Rene Lyst began building the gymnastics program at the University of Arkansas from the ground up. 

College gymnastics is at its highest point; more popular now than ever before, and with Olympians competing every weekend, record breaking crowds all across the country, and the most recent NCAA Championships outdoing ABC’s NHL package in both ratings and viewership—there’s arguably no better time for a “power school” to welcome the sport to campus. There will be pressure and expectations up front for Clemson. The team of coaches and administrators charged with those expectations will face the challenge of measuring up to the sports’ momentum immediately.

With the launch of Clemson’s program, all of the Power 5 conferences now officially sponsor gymnastics. Up until this point there were three ACC schools with gymnastics programs (North Carolina, NC State and Pitt) but the minimum number needed to host a conference championship has always been four. With the addition of Clemson, those teams can now leave the East Atlantic Gymnastics League and join Clemson in officially forming what will be the ACC gymnastics conference. It’s a groundbreaking move and opens up an endless world of possibilities for the future of the sport. It leaves us wondering what school will take the big leap next?

Of course a new program can’t get off the ground running without someone to lead the charge. On April 26, 2022 Clemson announced the hiring of Amy Smith as head coach. Smith, who helped the UCLA Bruins to its first NCAA Championships in 1997, comes to Clemson with over 20 years of coaching experience including in the last five seasons as head coach at Utah State. 

The announcement of Smith’s hiring hasn’t come without concern in the gymnastics community, with several of her former athletes speaking out on social media about the emotional abuse they suffered under her. With mental health surging to the forefront of college athletics and across all sports, Smith will need to balance the expectations of building a program from the ground up together with complete emphasis on the mental, emotional and physical health of her student athletes. It’s not a question, it’s a must. What she does off the competition floor will be just as important as what she does on it. All eyes will be on her.

There’s approximately 600 days until the Clemson Tigers step onto the floor in Littlejohn Coliseum for the very first time. For now, there’s still plenty of time to figure out plans for a new facility, filling the stands with fans, and meeting with the community. What we hope to see most importantly, is an institution-wide athlete-centric focus on building trust with the inaugural team of student athletes as they look to make history and break ground. 

Smith sat down with Inside Gymnastics to share her plans for building the Clemson program from the ground up.

Since the announcement, there has been a somewhat mixed reaction to your hiring with some statements put out by previous athletes you’ve coached (alleging emotional abuse). First, would you like to respond to anything you’ve seen or heard?

First and foremost the outpouring of support from the Clemson Community has been on another level. It’s been absolutely incredible! I’ve received a great deal of support from current student athletes and former student athletes, parents, and really the entire gymnastics community in general. Graham (Neff) and Stephanie (Ellison-Johnson) and everyone at Clemson have been beyond welcoming in this process. It was disappointing to see some of those posts on social media because I really do try to give that attention and provide in those areas… My staff and I work really hard to create an environment where the student athlete feels supported physically, mentally and emotionally. Mental health is incredibly important and I’m incredibly confident in our ability to support the student athletes and provide resources at the absolute highest level and give a great environment for them at Clemson. 

Tell me about the process you went through to secure the job. Was this an opportunity you sought out? 

It was a year ago that Clemson announced they were going to (add) lacrosse and gymnastics. This hasn’t been done on this scale, in this caliber, since Arkansas 20 years ago. The whole gymnastics community kind of erupted at that point… I reached out in the sense of congratulating and thanking Clemson for doing this because it’s a big deal! It’s really cool, and I just wanted to show support as a collegiate coach. I had been reached out to by somebody at Clemson and let them know that I was absolutely interested in this. Obviously that kind of parlayed into the whole crazy interview process and (in April), I ended up accepting the position and making the announcement. It’s been fast and furious and hasn’t really felt like a whirlwind—more like a tsunami—but the most exciting time in recent years that I can think of. 

What excites you the most about this new role and having the opportunity to build a program from the ground up—because that kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often. 

Right! That was one of the allures to this. I was team captain of the first UCLA national championship team. There’s also been moments in my career (as a coach) like getting Mizzou to NCAA’s for the first time… I love doing things that have never been done before. I love being that pioneer and that trailblazer so when this presented itself, to me, it was the perfect opportunity. It really aligns with what my goals are as a coach in that I’ve wanted to be at a program where I can do what I did as a student athlete at UCLA and help do these things that have never been done before, so what better opportunity than to start from the ground up and start from scratch? It’s a very unique undertaking, but I’m really hopeful that in this day and age, and with how prevalent and prominent female sports is now becoming, that other big schools are going to take notice and realize, ‘we need to get on board with this and do what Clemson is doing.’

Is it daunting at all to know you have all these decisions to make and the responsibility to build this program? 

Yes, but then the excitement takes over. You always have two choices in those situations: to have it stress you out or to have it excite you. For a minute it’s like, ‘Ahh there’s a lot, it’s overwhelming!” But really at the end of the day, the excitement and the opportunity… all of that stress goes out the window and I focus on that positive. It’s really easy at that point. 

Have you had the chance to talk to former Arkansas head coach Mark Cook at all since stepping into this role? 

Absolutely! The minute this started rolling I leaned on him and was like, ‘Hey, you were the last person to do this at this level’… [I asked] ‘What would you have done differently?’ and was picking his brain. He’s going to be somebody I’m going to continue to lean on. And of course, Clemson—they’ve done it! This isn’t the first time they’ve (added a program). You’re looking at softball, women’s golf and lacrosse… I just feel like it’s all these components coming together and it’s going to be absolutely incredible. And to be a part of it is so special. What a great honor and privilege it is! 

What were your first impressions of the campus and the athletic facilities?

It’s on another level of incredible and it’s absolutely beautiful. I think the biggest thing that stood out to me was the Clemson family and how welcoming everybody is. You just get this sense when you’re there that they want to do it at the highest level possible and create the best experience that they possibly can. And it’s not just lip service, they’re actually doing it! You see that with them adding softball in 2019 and the success that program has had. I got to throw out the first pitch and sit in this beautiful stadium; hearing them talk about how softball sells out—it’s packed—and eventually needing to build onto that structure because the supply is not matching where the demand is at. It’s incredible to step into an athletic department and the university itself and how connected those two are, it’s such a unique and beautiful situation to walk into. It’s just endless what could happen there with that level of support. 

Tell me about the new practice facility that is being built for the team and the timeline for its construction? 

It is a 27 million dollar project! It’s going to be rowing, lacrosse and us on this beautiful location overlooking the lake which is insanity! My brain is thinking about summer training and how when they’re done they can run off and jump into the lake. I’m like, ‘Oh that’s not too terrible at all is it?’ [Laughs] And on top of that, they are also building a woman’s recovery and wellness center up there, solely for the female student athlete. I’ve never seen anything like this concept before. It’s really cool! (Right now) they’re in the process of working out the zoning and the permits but we’re kind of figuring out the amount of space we’ve got, figuring out the inside of the gym. They’re hoping to break ground I believe in January of 2023 and hoping the gym is going to be done in September right in time for preseason to kick off and get started for that 2024 season. That’s the rough timeline right now. 

Click to see the design concepts for a few of the athletic facilities for women’s gymnastics

What are your hopes and goals for the program, not only in the inaugural season, but long term? 

I think one of the really exciting components of this is that we’re starting another Power 5 gymnastics conference with the ACC, so that is beyond super cool. For us, I think it’s coming out of the gates very strong and being that dominant force in the ACC right from the get-go, even though we’re starting right up. And then obviously, continuing to build and be one of those powerhouse programs that are out there and push to win a national championship. I really do believe in the resources and support here at Clemson, that that’s what we’re shooting for. 

Now that the ACC is sponsoring gymnastics, what can fans expect as far as competitions go?

We had our first ACC meeting the last week of April. Obviously it’s in infant stages right now and we’re talking through different things and asking, ‘What do we want this to be? What can it be?’ We’re talking about doing home and away meets with the other ACC schools. And when you want to be one of the premiere programs you have to run with those bigger conferences and bigger schools, so having the ability to compete against Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma and all of that—we’re talking about scheduling and figuring all that out! 

What is your strategy for building your inaugural team? Are you looking for mostly freshmen or a mix of freshmen and transfers? 

We’re looking at all of it! If this would have happened five years ago it would be a very different conversation because of where recruiting is at right now. Five years ago we were recruiting 8 year olds and it was picked dry, now it’s a different situation. I think given where recruiting is right now, it’s never been easier to start a team from scratch solely because you’ve got the transfer portal and the access to having (different) classes is more there than it ever has been. And as unfortunate as COVID was, that opens up the door too. There are so many stacked rosters out there right now that you’ve got incredible athletes who might not be getting to compete as much as they could. So I think that may open the door like, ‘I may be a junior but I can go there and compete and I may not get that opportunity at the school that I’m at.’ All those components really do add to the perfect storm of building a team and building it from scratch. 

Now that you’ve been announced as the head coach and conversations can start happening with potential recruits, what has the level of interest been like? 

It’s been insanity in the best possible way. The response and level of interest has far exceeded what I thought it was going to be and I thought it was going to be way up here [raises hand above head]. You’ve got a school with a very rich athletic tradition. You’ve got a school that’s got incredible academics. And then you’ve got a school that’s in this beautiful part of the country—what a triple threat of making recruiting very easy! Not to say that it’s not going to be difficult, but when you have all those components, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ And like I said, the outpouring has been on a level that I didn’t expect. It’s far exceeded it, so I’m excited to get out there and dive into this. 

Have you thought about how you plan to announce your inaugural team? Would you let the gymnasts announce their commitment on their own or would it be a big team announcement?

That’s a good question that I haven’t totally dove into yet, so I’m not totally sure. And obviously we need to get out there and start getting those commits, which I think they’re going to start trickling in here pretty quick, but we’ll kind of figure that out. But obviously we want to do it on a big level because it’s a big deal! 

Do you have a plan for how you’re going to build a fan base for Clemson gymnastics, both locally and nationally? 

One of the best pieces of advice I got while going through this process was making sure during this first year of not competing, that we really hit that marketing component. It’s my goal to get out in the Clemson community and build that fanbase and get out in the gyms in South Carolina. The goal is to pack Littlejohn Coliseum and sellout that very first meet to put our stamp on it right from the get-go. When I was out there throwing the first pitch at the softball game, I can’t tell you how many softball fans were coming up to me and were just so pumped and excited about gymnastics. Just being on campus the small amount that I have been, you feel that energy and you feel that buzz. Once again I’m getting chills because I love college gymnastics and to immediately feel that love and energy from people who haven’t necessarily had the chance to get a taste of what collegiate gymnastics is, it’s really cool and really special. 

Did you have a chance to pop into any local gyms during your visit? 

I did! You hear some of the little gymnasts squealing, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the new Clemson coach!’ So the word is getting out there. And talking to some of the club owners and hearing how much it means to them that Clemson is adding this program for the state of South Carolina and what it means to those young athletes to have an in-state college to aspire to and work towards, that is really cool as well.  

How will you build your staff? What qualities are you looking for in each person you hire?

I always like to surround myself with people who don’t have the same strengths as me so we can build a really strong, well-rounded coaching staff. Those are the kinds of things I look for; where are my strengths and weaknesses and finding people where we work together as a cohesive unit. 

Do you have any ideas of who you’re looking to hire? 

Another piece of advice I got was in that first year maybe just to bring on one assistant coach and potentially a director of ops to manage everything—because there is a lot going on. So that’s kind of the game plan right now. 

Note: On May 12, 2022, Erik Lewis was announced as the associate head coach. Lewis worked with Smith for four years at Utah State, serving as an assistant coach and associate head coach. 

There has been a lot of talk about the mental health of student athletes in the news lately. How do you create a balance between pushing them as athletes when you need to, yet still acknowledging that they’re human, allowing them to have a voice, and setting them up to become successful people outside of the gym?

I think it comes down to communication. (During our team banquet) I was talking to one of our seniors about how we have built this trust over the last four years and are able to communicate with each other. There are days when she would come up to me and say, ‘You know; X,Y, and Z isn’t feeling great today.’ I trust that she knows her body more than anybody else and she knows I’m not going to get upset over the situation. We have to get through this together and trust each other. I have to trust her that she’s going to be prepared and she has to trust me. So we have that conversation and really at the end of the day, they get to do this. They don’t have to do any of it. When you get to college you’re choosing to be here and do this. But obviously gymnastics is a numbers sport so if somebody (is out) for a week and can’t do the routines at the level that they need to do them to be safe, we aren’t going to compete them that weekend, but working within those parameters and having that communication with the athlete is where we’ve evolved to. 

Is there anything else you want to add or want people to know?

Just how exciting this is and what a big deal this is! And the amount of support that Clemson has shown has been on another level. Like I said [before I was hired], I was thanking them for doing this for the gymnastics community because it’s a huge deal. 

This interview has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity. 

Photos courtesy of the University of Clemson 

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