Florida’s Megan Skaggs’ Tiny Bow Project Colors Impact Beyond Athletics 

By Christy Sandmaier

“Dear Megan, You’ve made a tremendous impact on her…”

“Hi Megan, I can’t tell you what it means to see young girls who are part of the LGBTQ+ community feel seen and like they belong.”

“Megan, you are amazing. Thank you for bringing awareness to this. And for making your gymnastics bigger than yourself.”

Paired with a Purpose 

Double braids and two tiny bows. 

To many gymnasts, they are the finishing touch to the perfect competition look. For Florida’s fifth-year senior Megan Skaggs, her signature tiny bows have taken on a greater purpose this season. In November 2021, Skaggs launched the Tiny Bow Project which at its core shines a spotlight on 10 causes very close to her heart. 

Through its mission to inspire fans, bring education and financial impact to the chosen causes and charities, and empower young gymnasts to chase their dreams, the project is emblematic of Skaggs’ character, self-discovery within each chapter of her gymnastics life, and the gift that is her fifth year. “The tiny bows are always the final touch on my competition look,” she said. “During the 2022 season, I wanted to bring awareness to a unique cause at each meet, wearing matching tiny bows to represent each cause.” 

Each bow has colored a thousand journeys along the way, including her own. When I spoke with Skaggs, who comes from Marietta, Georgia and did her club gymnastics at Gymnastics Academy of Atlanta, it was evident from the beginning just how much she truly loves her team and how much this season has changed her life on and off the floor. As a student athlete competing in her final NCAA season, her role as a leader and as a clutch performer on the competition floor is coming to a close, but behind the chalk, sequins, and salutes is an impressive and inspiring woman who has already impacted the lives of so many. 

At 4 years-old she fell in love with the sport and in her pursuit of perfection eventually found herself competing and training alongside the best on the U.S. National team. In 2017, she began competing for the Gators and along the way, discovered not only who she was as a gymnast, but who she is as a person. A fifth season offered her the unique opportunity to compete with her team for an additional year and a purposeful new beginning for Skaggs who admits at times she’s lost herself and her motivation. 

“During my junior season in 2020, my strive for mental ‘perfection’ expired,” she writes on her website. “I lost my purpose. I lost my joy. I lost myself. Shortly after COVID-19 changed everything. Athletics were canceled, school shut down, and my community involvement vanished. For the first time in my life, I was forced to stop striving for perfection. Instead, I began striving to become myself. The best version of myself.”

It shows.

In what has so far been a dream ride for the Gators in 2022, Skaggs has not only had an impressive season, but a transformational one. She claimed consecutive All-Around wins with totals of 39.525 versus Alabama and Georgia, and shared second in the All-Around at the SEC Championships. Her confidence has soared, but so has her person. “Most NCAA athletes receive four years of eligibility,” she said. “Unlike most, I’ve been given a fifth year. As I compete in my fifth and final season as a Gator, my mission is to pair performance with purpose. This year is a gift, but it’s also an opportunity to give back.”

Game-Changer 

When the NCAA changed its policies and began allowing college athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness (NIL) in 2021, a door opened for student athletes across the country. Skaggs was no exception. She knew she wanted to give back but wanted to take her time creating the right project, finding the right platform and working with the right people. She wanted something with staying power.

Together with UCLA graduate and former Bruin Team Manager Cory Tomlinson, founder of Make It Loud, LLC, whom she recognized as “the guy screaming on the sidelines at Arkansas” and met working a gymnastics camp in Nebraska, Skaggs methodically weighed her options to determine who and what she wanted to represent, and why

“I’d always been a fan of [Tomlinson] and just appreciate someone who’s making an impact in the sport just through being an amazing person, but also, giving back to people he knows,” Skaggs said. We really just aligned with our values and what we cared about.”

There was an instant connection as they chatted over tacos in Oregon and both knew their natural synergy would serve as a catalyst to create exactly the right project for Skaggs – one that inspired a lasting educational impact and remained true to who Skaggs is as a person.

“We were so purposeful in exactly what made sense for Megan, what we know Megan wants to do in the future and what we know the impact she could have this season,” Tomlinson said. “No matter how much money or how beautiful and amazing – it didn’t matter, at all, because we wanted to make sure that it was authentic to who she is as a human being.”

The ultimate question Skaggs set out to answer was how she would go about using this year to develop a project focused on purpose, goals and impact, and what exactly it would look like. Tomlinson asked about the bows Skaggs always wore and soon a visual representation paired with a cause-oriented campaign sprang to life. 

“Cory said, ‘Hear me out.’” Skaggs remembers. “And came back with, ‘Okay, you always wear these bows. Let’s use those and call it the Tiny Bow Project.’ The heart alignment was already there, but Tiny Bow Project was Cory’s baby. He brought it to life. It’s such a small thing that could stand for something bigger, but it didn’t take away from ‘Okay, this is my meet day. Get up, get ready.’ I’m not adding anything that’s going to take away from my ability to give my all to my team and to each of my competitive routines. I’m just changing the color of the bow that’s in my hair.” 

Behind the scenes, Tomlinson navigated a hefty and complex list of NIL rules and regulations while Skaggs set about determining the causes most meaningful to her, what the impact on her team might be, and how she could create a universal platform for other teams to participate during the season if it worked out. 

“I thought about how it would actually look coming to life during season. What would the causes be? Asking myself questions like, ‘What do I care about? What do my teammates care about? What impacts us? What impacts the gymnastics community?’ And really, from there, I was able to build out ten causes that aligned with the ten regular season meets, and it just grew and naturally happened.”

From there, the business plan took shape. Tomlinson paired each cause with highly researched and reputable charities, allowing the space to refocus their efforts if something didn’t feel right or align with their overall goals. The bows would be available on Skaggs’ website  with 20% of each purchase being donated to the charities represented. In addition, Tomlinson developed strong relationships with each charity, and constantly weighed Skaggs’ busy schedule when new opportunities were presented. It was a balance essential to the Tiny Bow Project’s success.

“It was important to me to make sure we were building out her business plan according to what we knew was going to be right emotionally for her and what was going to be right for her business-wise. It was very important to me as a part of her business side, that nothing we do or nothing we would do during season could ever interrupt anything about her sport, about her school, about her well-being,” Tomlinson said. “… all those pieces were really about authenticity, and a lot of purpose went into every decision that we made.”

Go Time! 

With the causes and charities in place, each competition and color aligned, the Tiny Bow Project launched January 7 at the Florida versus Northern Illinois, Rutgers, TWU meet with Mental Health as its focus. Having captured so much attention and multiple headlines at the 2020 Olympic Games, both Skaggs and Tomlinson agreed it was a topic that would resonate with everyone. 

We were coming off the summer where Simone had the moment at the Olympics that she had,” Tomlinson said. “When Megan and I thought about how we could impact the next generation of young athletes and young gymnasts, we knew that the first cause we needed to do really painted the picture of where we were heading.”

For Skaggs, mental health and its pairing with the Tiny Bow Project encapsulated everything she envisioned for the project overall, including bringing each gymnast in the meet on board united for a cause. It was the dynamic that ultimately set the tone for all ten meets.

“It was a really exciting and purposeful way to start off Tiny Bow Project because it was hard not to notice that every team was competing for something bigger than ourselves – understanding it has purpose behind it and that it means more than just the routines that we’re going to do on Friday night,” Skaggs said. “It was something that could really unite us all beyond our team colors. Educating other young gymnasts on the importance of mental health and setting boundaries between your mental, emotional and physical investment in the sport and being able to share that message and also share personal stories throughout the week – I know a lot of my teammates hopped on board with that – it was just a cool moment of unity across teams and across sport.”

Spotlighting mental health first served as a catalyst for each cause and competition, Skaggs and Tomlinson said. Working with each charity also created a stepping stone to partner with powerful advocates and make connections within the community. As part of her own educational process and preparation, Skaggs was able to speak with Victoria Garrick, the CEO of The Hidden Opponent, who first began sharing her story of how she battled and overcame depression and anxiety as a student-athlete in her 2017 TED Talk, “The Hidden Opponent.” Garrick’s message magnified Skaggs’ determination to normalize conversation surrounding mental health. 

“I think it’s so important that we were able to share that message for parents and for young kids to start that educational process and really break down a barrier of communication that you really don’t talk about – mental health in athletics, especially for kids who are that young,” she said.

With the positive response and enthusiasm surrounding the Tiny Bow Project building, Skaggs’ focus on the next cause quickly went from prime time to big time when it was announced that the Alabama meet was moving from the Friday Night Heights lineup to Sunday afternoon on ABC. It was a monumental moment in the sport – a live regular season meet on a Sunday in January – and an exciting opportunity for Skaggs to share the Tiny Bow Project’s alignment with LGBTQ+ Pride and The Trevor Project with a national audience. The meet itself, and the support Skaggs felt, created an impact far beyond the floor. 

“There was a lot of anticipation just with how impactful a moment that was going to be for the sport, for our two teams to be showcased on ABC,” Skaggs said. “We were super excited to compete for equality, to represent unity and display that on a big stage and also celebrate diversity among both of our teams and be able to just set an example for what love looks like on our teams.” 

Following the competition, heartfelt messages poured into Skaggs’ DMs from both athletes and parents sharing their experiences and thanking Skaggs for bringing awareness to the cause. It was both moving and eye opening. “If that one young gymnast could feel a sense of belonging and feel like there is a place for her in the sport in collegiate athletics and gymnastics, that’s enough,” she notes. “That’s what the Tiny Bow Project exists to do. And in that moment, if no other impact was made throughout the season, we touched her, and that’s all that matters.”

Human Trafficking (A21), Breast Cancer {Play for P.I.N.K), Bullying Prevention (Stomp Out Bullying), Allyship (RISE) Autism (Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Childhood Cancer (Friends of Jaclyn Foundation), Education (Reach Out and Read), and Water (Charity:Water), in addition to Mental Health and LGTBQ+ Pride rounded out the full slate of causes and charities for the project, each impacting Skaggs in a way she didn’t expect. What surprised her most week after week and even now as she reflects back, was the global impact she could see the Tiny Bow Project making. “It feels like it gave me more than I gave the world. The feeling of what we’ve learned and what we’ve gained as individuals is so significant as well.”

She was also able to share the projects and partner directly with student athletes and teams within the SEC. During the LGBTQ+ Pride meet, she teamed up with Alabama’s Luisa Blanco to encourage the entire ‘Bama team to wear the rainbow ribbons. For the Link to Pink Meet, Skaggs worked with the University of Arkansas’ Bailey Lovett and Maggie O’Hara to align with The Give Back, a philanthropic effort created to donate NIL earnings to a charity during the 2022 Season. 

Tomlinson, who also serves as Arkansas’ hype man during the season, loved making the connection. “It was super fun because after we had announced Tiny Bow Project and they announced The Give Back, it was this special moment where I was able to put all of them into a group chat and be like, ‘you guys, we’re pairing performance with purpose!” Tomlinson said. “It was so cool for them to all just make sure that they had those ribbons in their hair and do whatever they could.”

The result was overwhelmingly positive. “You could feel that purpose through the Arkansas team, and of course, through our team,” Skaggs said. “It’s good to stand for a cause together across both teams. We were able to collaborate on a video that the Gators Gym account and the Razorback Gym account posted just to show that unity and take that one step further on social.”

Connecting with people around the world through the project has also offered Skaggs great perspective and a re-awareness of the challenges people everywhere face each and every day. Whether it was hearing from a young woman in Zimbabwe about her country’s lack of access to clean water, a gymnast’s anxiety over cyberbullying, a family’s battle with childhood cancer, a mother’s note about her son on the Autism spectrum, or the conversations surrounding equality and racial justice, Skaggs and Tomlinson wanted to ensure the Tiny Bow Project also served as motivation to make a change and create an impact no matter how tough the topic. 

Skaggs’ personal commitment to all of the causes was felt throughout the project and her own growth as a person continued each week, and in particular Allyship Week. “During Allyship Week, we partnered with RISE, and they focus specifically on athletics,” Skaggs said. “We had Our Colour Wrap, which is so simple that it should have existed so much longer ago, but we’re here now. It’s such a simple thing, similar to wearing the bows in your hair, that you can do. It was a great opportunity for me, someone who has never struggled with having tape match my skin, to be able to celebrate a product that’s serving others who don’t look like me and also include me. I think anytime that there’s a visual representation of impact, it’s way more meaningful, especially when we’re a spectator sport.” Skaggs said. 

“I also learned a new term that week. We always talk about being an ally, but when I was on the RISE podcast, I learned what it meant to be an accomplice. You’re right there in it with someone who is struggling, like you’re walking through the trenches with them. That really put in perspective that as an ally, I can say that I love my teammates and I stand up for them, but as an accomplice, I am taking that commitment one step further to make sure my actions not only serve myself, but serve others who don’t look like me and don’t represent the same communities that I represent. That was a great educational moment for me and another one of those experiences where I hopefully was able to add value to the world but also received a crazy amount of value out of it for myself that I can carry with me.”

Forever Bonded By the Connection

Bringing Tiny Bow Project to life and seeing the immediate positive response has been Skaggs’ greatest joy. Competitions, conversations, Insta Lives and Stories, partnerships and podcasts and even a young athlete having a Megan Skaggs-themed Birthday party, absolutely every moment has been worth it.

“This year has been all about purpose, and where there is purpose, your performance is better,” she reflects. “I could hit as many perfect handstands or stick as many perfect discounts as I possibly can at every single meet I compete at. But that will never be as impactful as the Tiny Bow Project has been for me and for others. I think there are definitely a lot of student athletes out there who want to use their NIL opportunities for good, and I hope that Tiny Bow Project can inspire them or can give them a framework for how to bring that to life.”

At the end of the day, she knows no matter where it goes from here, the Tiny Bow Project is something bigger than herself. “It has been such a rewarding process and rewarding season, and you can see that there’s purpose behind my performance when I’m performing as well as I am, because that’s not me,” she says. “The pressure is off of me. It’s my fifth year. Everything is extra. I shouldn’t even be here doing gymnastics. Any opportunity is a gift. But like we said from the beginning, it’s an opportunity to give back.”

On Thursday night in Fort Worth, Skaggs will represent her team as they continue on the road to the National Championship in the second of two semifinals. A top two finish there will send the Gators to the final “Four on the Floor” competition on Saturday. 

All those moved by the impact of the Tiny Bow Project will be right beside her.

Dear Megan, We’re all so proud of you.

For more information on the Tiny Bow Project, visit meganskaggs.com/behindtheproject and meganskaggs.com/charities

Megan Skaggs has been honored with a nomination for the NIL Summit Athlete Advocate of the Year Award! This award recognizes the student-athlete that has best leveraged their Name, Image and Likeness to create substantial impact towards their community, non-profit, and/or philanthropic causes.

Look for more on Megan Skaggs and the Tiny Bow Project in Inside Gymnastics Special Edition May/June NCAA Commemorative Issue! Click Here to Subscribe Today!

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics 

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