Gymnasts win national title for academics

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Southeast ended Southern Utah's reign atop the rankings.

The members of the Southeast Missouri State gymnastics team have more in common than their passion for athletics.

"We joke that we're pretty much all nerds," junior Maureen Grimaldi said. "We're nerds, and we like to do homework."

The Redhawks gymnasts can collectively chant something else as well: "We're No. 1! ... in GPA."

Southeast's gymnastics team on Friday was named the Academic National Champions, according to the National Association of Collegiate Gymnastics Coaches/Women.

With a team GPA of 3.741, Southeast ended a six-year run of first-place finishes by Southern Utah.

Southern Utah was third with a GPA of 3.733, just behind Denver's 3.736.

The first-place finish extended a trend for Southeast in the rankings. The Redhawks were fifth with a GPA of 3.54 in 2005-06, which was Tom Farden's third season at the helm for the program. That year, the team accomplished Farden's goal of making the NCAA South Central Regional as a team while also making a big jump up the academic rankings.

"It takes time to recultivate what you have," Farden said. "One of my priorities is to make sure we recruit student-athletes who are academically and athletically solid.

"We're real excited because the degrees they're choosing are solid."

Certainly no cupcake majors for these nerds.

Grimaldi, a junior-to-be from Kansas City, is one of four members of the team who posted a perfect 4.0 GPA in 2006-07. She is majoring in art and graphic design.

Also carrying 4.0s were Sandra Blake, a junior majoring in accounting; Jacqueline Heath, a sophomore majoring in physics and math; and Kelley Kriengel, a sophomore majoring in health management.

Five other athletes were at 3.5 or better: Amber Garlotte, a sophomore majoring in accounting; Jena Nguyen, a sophomore majoring in biology; Starlyn Schwartz, a junior majoring in mass communications; Rikara Turner, a sophomore who had not yet picked a major; and Bryanna Wong, a sophomore majoring in health management.

"We definitely put academics ahead of our athletics, and Tom stresses that for us," Grimaldi said.

"He knows we have a life after gymnastics," added Heath, who said she may use her education down the road in teaching or orthodontics.

Farden made the team aware after the fall semester where the team stood academically -- 3.71, which put the team in contention for the nation's top three. That provided incentive for the spring.

"He definitely wanted us to do it this year, and he pushed us," Grimaldi said. "It was something we really strived for in the second semester, when you're in season and it's harder to keep your grades up. It's pretty difficult, but it's something we've been doing for a while with our schedules so we're pretty used to the time management."

Farden said his athletes knew they had freedom to achieve academically.

"It's a razor's edge line if you want to be good at both academics and athletics," he said. "When we have our team meetings, we talk about academics at least once a week if not every day with all of them. We placed a large emphasis on study sessions, even if they conflict with practices. If you don't let them go to study sessions and meet with their professors, how can they get better?"

Farden said he was able to modify schedules for the gymnasts to make the most of their practice sessions to work on selected disciplines.

In addition, team members often were studying on the bus or at the hotel on road trips.

"We would do our homework together and stuff like that," Heath said. "I know a lot of people were in physical therapy and exercise science and could help each other. A lot of people came to me when they needed help with math."

With nine gymnasts making the NACGC/W Scholar Athletes list at 3.5 or better, Farden has had 24 gymnasts honored in his first four years.

While Southeast didn't make the regional as a team, the Redhawks at one time held the No. 22 spot in the national rankings. Turner was the Midwest Independent Conference newcomer of the year and qualified to the NCAA regional along with Blake, Nguyen and Wong.

"My biggest goal this year," Heath said, "is to make the regional as a team because we didn't do it as a team. And I want to break 9.8 on the bars."

And don't expect the nerds to back off from defending their national title in academics.

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