College gymnast faces reality of program’s final NCAA season

Tyler Davis vs. Iowa
Tyler Davis performs a flip during Minnesota’s Jan. 30 meet against Iowa. (University of Minnesota Athletics)

By Connor Groel
Medill Reports

There had been months of waiting. Over the summer of 2020, members of the University of Minnesota men’s gymnastics team had asked their athletic department repeatedly if there was any chance their program could be cut. They wanted to be prepared for the worst but received no straight answers.

Then, one mid-September afternoon, a notification alerted them of a mandatory Zoom meeting beginning in just minutes. And it was there the team learned that 2021 would be its final season as an NCAA program.

“For them to just drop the ball on us like that was very frustrating to be a part of, especially without a lot of opportunity to try and fight for ourselves,” said junior Tyler Davis. “They claim that they felt very sorry for us, but their actions said otherwise. It more felt like a stab to the back, honestly, than anything.”

The Golden Gophers will host the NCAA Championship meet from April 16-17.  That event will be both a celebration and a goodbye.

A contentious 7-5 vote from the university’s Board of Regents in October finalized the decision. Minnesota men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s indoor track and field became the next victims in a list of over 350 NCAA programs slashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The cuts have put an early end to athletes’ dreams nationwide. And for Davis, it has meant his gymnastics career, full of hard work, struggle and growth, will finish without the culmination of a senior year competing for Minnesota at the highest level.

“Every one of these guys on my team has made a firm commitment to the University of Minnesota,” said coach Mike Burns. “That commitment was not honored on the other side of the table. And for that, I’ll never forgive our administration.”

Davis remembers always flipping around on the couch as a young kid, leading his parents to put him in gymnastics class around the age of five. He also played soccer in high school but became motivated to pursue gymnastics in college after switching club teams and training under coach Michael Heredia, who had competed for the University of Oklahoma.

During this time, Davis broke his leg twice, providing a significant setback to his collegiate hopes. However, he never lost the drive to continue improving in any way possible.

“He would come in and he would have his boot on his leg,” Heredia said. “He was doing conditioning, upper body events, everything he could do to make sure he was setting himself up for that next level.”

This relentless work ethic allowed him to make the most of his natural ability, impressing the University of Minnesota and Burns.

“Was Tyler a five-star athlete? No,” Heredia said. “But he had all of these aspects to be a good teammate and to contribute on a Division-I team.”

Davis has continued to improve his performance at Minnesota while also helping to elevate those around him. For the 2021 season, he was named a team captain by his teammates.

“He has a lot of leadership skills that are just natural to him,” Burns said. “And he’s using them to his best advantage right now.”

Knowing the financial pressure that the pandemic would place on Minnesota’s athletic department, the gymnastics team explored alternative methods of funding the sport. In December, Burns made an appearance on 60 Minutes where he outlined the team’s plan to make their program self-sustainable by starting a youth gymnastics club.

But Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle chose not to give that idea a chance. Coyle also declined to be interviewed for 60 Minutes, instead issuing this statement:

“The University of Minnesota believes that the changes it has made, however, heartbreaking, will best position its department of athletics for sustainable, long-term success.”

Three-time Olympian John Roethlisberger won the NCAA All-Around championship each year from 1991-93 while competing for Minnesota and expressed frustration with how the decision to slash the program was made.

“That’s what the shock was to this whole process,” Roethlisberger said. “It wasn’t that they wanted to cut men’s gymnastics. It was with the complete disregard for any conversation about saving the program.”

And the impacts of this cut go far beyond just the Minnesota team. For a sport that has seen many reductions over the years, losing two Big Ten programs (Iowa is also eliminating men’s gymnastics following the 2021 season) is devastating. It also takes away future opportunities for young gymnasts and disregards those who have supported these programs.

“The saddest part of this whole thing is those opportunities are going away,” Roethlisberger said. “A lot of people care, it’s just not the people that get to make the decisions.”

For now, though, Minnesota’s last season competing in the NCAA continues. And while it may seem difficult to remain motivated after everything that’s happened, Davis has chosen to compete for those who have supported him.

“I think throughout this experience, I’ve learned that I want to do it for the people that care about me and have invested in me,” Davis said. “So this season has definitely been for my coaches and teammates, my family and all the alumni that came before us that have left a legacy.”

Connor Groel is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @ConnorGroel.