Setting the Bar

Men’s gymnastics is in decline at the collegiate level. But Stanford’s squad is flying high—and bringing the U.S. team along with it.

March 2024

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Setting the Bar

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: From top, left to right: Hong, Arun Chhetri, ’26, Nick Kuebler, ’25, David Shamah, ’27, Blake Sun, ’21, Toma Murakawa, ’27, Brandon Nguyen, ’24, Reece Landsperger, ’27, Jeremy Bischoff, ’24, Burkhart, Kaien Orion, ’26, Ian Gunther, ’22, MS ’23, Young, Zach Green, ’27, Marcus Kushner, ’26, Mark Berlaga, ’25. Not pictured: Briones, J.R. Chou, ’23, Ian Lasic-Ellis, ’25, McFarland, Walker.

Photography by John Todd

F ull send. No one embodies the Stanford men’s gymnastics team’s unspoken mantra for going all out quite like junior Taylor Burkhart. An athlete who approaches gymnastics “like a caged animal” yet is “the nicest guy,” according to assistant coach Mark Freeman, Burkhart has an energy that can change the momentum of a meet. Even so, Burkhart was surprised when head coach Thom Glielmi tapped him to lead off the 2023 NCAA championships, held in State College, Pa., last spring, with the first vault on the team’s first rotation. Burkhart’s sophomore season had been rocky: A hand injury had kept him out of all but four meets and knocked him off the U.S. Men’s National Team. Moreover, his vault, a difficult round-off backward half launch into a front flip with two full twists, was hardly the conservative routine with which teams typically begin their rotation on an apparatus. But Burkhart didn’t flinch. He knew what his coaches and teammates were counting on him to do. He saluted the judges, started his sprint—“and then I blacked out,” he recalls with a laugh. The next thing he remembers was sticking his landing as his teammates exploded in jubilation. His vault would earn him a career-best score of 15.00 and launch a string of Stanford stuck landings on the way to a decisive fourth straight NCAA crown. Says Burkhart, “I wanted to leave no doubt which team was best.”

Stories about the demise of collegiate men’s gymnastics abound. Thanks to many forces, including waning grassroots support and athletic-department budget cuts and shifting priorities, especially in the wake of Title IX, an NCAA field that boasted more than 200 teams in 1969 is down to just 15 in 2024, placing it among the smallest sports the NCAA sponsors. But at Stanford, men’s gymnastics is very much alive—and dreaming big. “We don’t want to be just the best team in the United States,” says junior Khoi Young. “We want to be the best team in the world.”

This gem of a program, which will be shooting for its fifth straight and 10th overall NCAA title in April, isn’t just a departmental point of pride and one of the cumulative top point-getters for the 26 Directors’ Cups Stanford has piled up. It’s a crucial pipeline for the U.S. Men’s National Team. At the start of the year, six of the 19 senior national team members were Cardinal athletes, while three others—Riley Loos, ’23, Brody Malone, ’22, and Curran Phillips, ’22—were recent graduates. Personnel aside, Stanford has embraced a national team perspective that recognizes that the only way to compete with the top teams in the world is to push difficulty in routines—to go big.

Glielmi, Lopéz Martinéz, Breckenridge, and FreemanSQUAD QUAD: Glielmi, Lopéz Martinéz, Breckenridge, and Freeman manage the team’s multipronged workouts for 19 gymnasts across six events.

The United States has historically been behind the top nations in difficulty of routines, which puts it in a hole before a competition even starts. (Scores are a combination of execution and difficulty.) Glielmi, who coached the 2020 Olympic team, is helping bridge that gap by urging his gymnasts to maximize their E-scores (out of a possible 10.0) while ratcheting up their D-scores (which don’t have a cap but rarely exceed 7.0). It turns out that chasing Japan and China on the international front helps the Cardinal stay ahead of Michigan and Oklahoma on the collegiate front. “We’ve been able to win the NCAA title four years in a row by being far ahead of the field in taking risks,” says Loos, a seven-time All-American who graduated last year but is training with the Stanford team ahead of the Olympic trials in June. “We’ve created a new standard in NCAA gymnastics that people are starting to catch up on.” And that, says former Olympian Brett McClure, high performance director at USA Gymnastics, “is bringing up the entire national program.” 

Going big has produced some eye-popping results for the Cardinal. In the NCAA championships, where team scores are the sum total of five gymnasts’ scored routines in each of six events—floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and high bar—the winning margin is often a fraction of a point. Stanford has won the last three titles by more than 2.5 points. Last year’s team was so deep that it beat runner-up Michigan by 2.569 points despite missing Malone, the most decorated gymnast in Stanford history, who was injured while competing with the national team in March. The year before, Stanford won by a staggering nine points, leading NBC commentator Tim Daggett to call the Cardinal “the most dominant team gymnastics has ever seen.”

A lot goes into maintaining that dominance. “Obviously you need talent,” says sophomore standout Asher Hong, the nation’s top recruit two years ago, who already has two World Championships to his credit. “But you also need guys who aren’t afraid of putting in the work despite their talent—and have the humility to put the team’s goals above individual ones.” 

Glielmi, who has signed a number of top recruits in his 22 years on the Farm, doesn’t take those last two qualities for granted. “Gymnasts are like feral cats,” he says. “They tend to be very independent. There are usually some outliers who don’t buy into the program. Now all the guys embrace the program. They understand the highs and lows. They support each other, push each other, hold each other accountable. They sincerely want success for the team. The way it has come together as a real team in the past six or so years—it’s very rare.”

Asher Hong, Riley Loos, Khoi Young performingPhotos: Karen Hickey/ISI

They’ve got the moves

This year’s tightly knit squad includes Olympic hopefuls Colt Walker, a senior All-American who won a silver in the parallel bars at the Pan American Games in October; Hong, who won the U.S. Nationals All-Around and NCAA vault titles last year; and Young, who won silver medals in the pommel horse and vault and, along with Hong, helped the United States to a team bronze at October’s World Championships in Belgium, its best international performance in nearly a decade. 

Then there’s Burkhart, a junior who is strong in vault, floor, high bar, and parallel bars but has achieved true gymnastics immortality in the pommel horse. Burkhart is one of the very few gymnasts in the world to get his name into the Code of Points, the gymnastics bible that lays out the law on everything from equipment setup to point deductions. The COP—which details more than 700 men’s gymnastics skills— includes 263 named after the gymnasts who created and first successfully executed them in an international meet. Of the 18 Americans in it, six are from Stanford—and five of those are Glielmi recruits, including Malone, who created a parallel bars mount into a handstand followed by a three-quarter turn; Loos, whose pommel horse skill involves circling one end of the horse and then hopping to the other end into a handstand; and Burkhart, whose unusual flared-leg travel from one end of the horse to the other got the nod in 2022.

“The Stanford guys are incredibly innovative,” says McClure. “They are constantly looking for new skills, new combinations, and new ways of doing routines—what they consider the smartest and most efficient way.”

While the practice environment at the Ford Center is intensely competitive—Glielmi’s philosophy is “practice how you want to compete”—it is also remarkably supportive. Glielmi has created what Loos calls “a tiered culture of accountability” that starts with a yearlong training program of 12- to 14-week cycles, each of which is broken down into smaller cycles of easy, medium, and hard weeks, with their own daily assignments. Helping Glielmi track 19 gymnasts with as many as six routines each are three assistants—Freeman, Grant Breckenridge, ’19, and Rubén Lopéz Martinéz—as well as two team captains and six event leaders, who spell out expectations for every apparatus. 

Even Cardinal gymnasts who don’t have Olympic aspirations often find themselves training like they do. Says co-captain Luke McFarland, a junior who expects his career to end with college, “Asher does the hardest vault in the world, and I get to see him do that every day. That pushes me as a gymnast. That’s what I’ve got to be working toward if I want to be in the lineup at NCAAs.” Adds fifth-year senior Brandon Briones, a five-time All-American and 2020 Olympic team alternate whose goal of making the ’24 team ended when he injured an Achilles tendon in early January: “Thom’s goal for you is to strive towards a routine that could be in a world championship final. That’s the standard that he sets for everyone.”

The gymnasts coach one another toward that standard, especially with nuances such as how a certain skill should feel or which muscles one should engage when executing, say, a cross on the rings. They also keep each other honest. If a handstand is off-kilter or a dismount sloppy, teammates will call it out and make the offender do his “number”—a routine or part of a routine—again. 

If there are hard feelings, they don’t linger. These guys are all best friends who eat, study, and hang out together even though they live all over campus. “We’re like brothers,” says Hong. 

Glielmi knows as well as anyone that the grind is long and hard in gymnastics. His athletes say he is good at reading people—sussing out their needs and making athletes’ health a priority. And as long as everybody does their assigned work, he keeps the mood light. “When I came here, I was shocked at how fun the training environment was on a team this successful,” says Young. “A lot of that is Thom. He’s always creating little competitions and encouraging us to cheer, or cracking jokes, or doing little things to surprise us, like shutting off the music just as a guy is about to start a routine.” Glielmi also likes to tell stories, which can boost team chemistry just through collective eye-rolling. “He always gives us a hard time because we have much better padding and mats now,” says Burkhart. “He’s like, ‘Back in my day, I had to do a double back on concrete.’”

Colt Walker, Brandon Nguyen, Taylor Burkhart performingPhotos: Karen Hickey/ISI

For whom the gym tolls

It’s easy to understand how boys get into gymnastics. Often, they are the kids whose persistent couch trampolining, wall climbing, or, in the case of Hong, early obsession with Spiderman drive their parents to drop them off at a tumbling class just to drain excess energy. The bigger question is why they stay. Certainly the path to athletic glory for guys who top out under 6 feet is narrow. (The Cardinal’s average male gymnast height is 5’6”.) But gymnastics seems to present a raft of disincentives: The time demands are enormous, the instant gratification nil, the public acclaim scant, the professional avenues limited, and, even if one avoids the most gruesome injuries—such as French gymnast Samir Ait’s leg snapping in half on his vault landing at the Rio Olympics—the physical toll steep. 

But among its practitioners, gymnastics can inspire a fierce passion. “It’s a very difficult sport that not many people can do, yet it’s so rewarding as to be almost addictive,” says Walker, a mechanical engineering major who appreciates the sport’s technical aspects. “Once you master the hardest thing that you can think of, you move on to a harder version. And there’s always a harder version.” 

For example, Hong’s vault, the Ri Se Gwang, which involves a dizzying full-twisting triple backward somersault, is already the highest difficulty vault in the world. But he does think about ways to upgrade it—after the Olympics, he says—perhaps by straightening his legs or adding an extra full twist. “It’s hard to imagine, but there are ways to make that vault even more difficult,” he says, laughing.

The infinite possibilities are what grabbed Glielmi. The youngest of 11 kids growing up on Chicago’s South Side, he sought thrills with his friends by taking bets over whether he could “chuck” flips off fences and garages. “The neighborhood I was in, nobody had any money, so you’d get a couple bucks, that was it,” he says.

During Glielmi’s freshman year in high school, his family moved to one of the city’s southern suburbs. When a teacher saw Glielmi doing flips in a physical education class, he suggested he go to the school’s gymnastics tryouts, which were being held an hour before baseball tryouts. Glielmi showed up for the gymnastics tryouts—with his baseball glove. “I loved baseball, and I was good at it,” he says. But seeing the gymnastics equipment, he could imagine thrills that baseball would never provide. “You can always add another flip, another twist, different ways to put a routine together,” he says. “I never left the gym.”

Gymnastics eventually led him to Southern Illinois University, where legendary coach Bill Meade had won four NCAA titles between 1964 and 1972. Meade ran his program in a straightforward, disciplined way that would strongly influence Glielmi. “There were no surprises: These are the rules, these are the repercussions; it didn’t matter if you were the best guy or the worst guy,” says Glielmi, who was consistently in the lineup in parallel bars, floor, and vault. “I thrived under that.”

Glielmi headshot photo

‘Gymnasts are like feral cats. They tend to be very independent. Now all the guys embrace the program. They support each other, push each other, hold each other accountable.’

Before he could launch a career with the communications degree he earned in 1988, Glielmi got offers to coach. After a few years of coaching both girls and boys, he decided to open his own facility. Being a co-owner of the International Sports Center in Matthews, N.C., was “a ton of work,” he says, but he learned lessons about running a business that would turn out to be critical when he became a head coach. In 1998, the University of Minnesota called with an assistant coaching offer. “I mistakenly thought I’d go from working 70 to 80 hours a week to a 40-hour week,” he says. “But when you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like work.”

After earning the NCAA Assistant Coach of the Year award in 2001, Glielmi landed at Stanford as the assistant and heir apparent to Sadao Hamada, who had coached two Olympians—Steve Hug, ’74, and Jair Lynch, ’93—and won three NCAA titles (’92, ’93, and ’95) in his 30-year tenure. When Hamada retired in 2002 after a sixth-place finish in the NCAAs, six seniors graduated, leaving Glielmi with just nine gymnasts and a rebuilding project. When a few of his gymnasts made the national team, Glielmi started to gain credibility with recruits.

It would be four years before Stanford returned to the top six, but it hasn’t left since, winning it all in 2009, ’11, ’19, ’21, ’22, and ’23. If Stanford wins again in April, Glielmi will become the first coach of any Cardinal men’s team to win five straight NCAA titles. (The 2020 event was canceled due to COVID-19.)

Pulling off such a feat won’t be easy, as Oklahoma can attest. In 2019, the Sooners were heading for their fifth straight title, which would have tied Nebraska’s record streak from ’79 to ’83, when their star gymnast fell on the high bar. That opened the door for Stanford to squeak out the narrow win that started the Cardinal’s streak. 

It’s a message Glielmi delivers often: Stuff happens; be grateful for your opportunities and don’t take anything for granted. More than that, enjoy the process, the daily achievements. “The titles are all great,” he says. “But what you did to get there or how you attacked or how you managed that competition is more valuable, win or lose. The most important thing is that you come out of there being happy with what you did.” If you did it full send, all the better.

Kelli Anderson, ’84, is a writer in Sonoma, Calif. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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