NCAA men's gymnastics championships features Olympic hopefuls

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) -- The NCAA men's gymnastics meet isn't just to decide who will be this year's national champion. It's also a miniature preview of the upcoming U.S. Olympic trials.

Six current members of the U.S. national team will compete this week at the NCAA meet, where six teams will advance from Thursday night's qualifying round for a shot at the national title on Friday.

For a few nights, that group - Michigan's Sam Mikulak and Adrian De Los Angeles, Illinois' C.J. Maestas and Paul Ruggeri III, Oklahoma's Jake Dalton and California's Glen Ishino - won't be focused on Team USA but on the NCAA trophy.

Penn State, Stanford, Minnesota, Ohio State, Temple, Nebraska, Iowa and Air Force are also part of the field.

"We've all got big aspirations. This is a big competition," Mikulak said Wednesday. "There's still bigger things to come."

Just as college football serves as the minor leagues for the NFL, college gymnastics teams feed talent into the U.S. Olympic squad. The U.S team that won the bronze medal four years ago in Beijing included four gymnasts just out of college, including high bar silver medalist Jonathan Horton from Oklahoma.

"I think that's a testament to the strength of NCAA gymnastics. These programs are putting out national team members, potential Olympians and arguably some of the best gymnasts in the world," said Justin Spring, another member of that 2008 team and now the coach at Illinois. "It's pretty cool."

And yet, the college side of the sport is struggling. Still a prime-time draw during the Olympics, there are only 17 NCAA teams in the country in all divisions - 16 at the highest level and one Division III team.

Those numbers nearly shrunk by one last year when Cal moved to bump its program down to a club sport before a fundraising campaign brought in enough money to save it in the short term.

So, even during an Olympic year when interest in gymnastics peaks, the men's programs don't feel comfortable.

"It's sad that those programs are shrinking and I think from what happened to us at Berkeley, other schools really are realizing the kind of fragile climate that men's gymnastics is in at the NCAA level," Cal coach Tim McNeill said.

"Everyone is realizing that they need to form formal committees that fund-raise constantly. ... What happened to us at Berkeley could happen anywhere."

Spring is even proposing vast changes to the format of the college sport that would turn it into more of a head-to-head competition. Instead of adding up judges' scores over the course of a meet, Spring's system would have gymnasts from two teams compete on the same apparatus and have the gymnast with the higher score earn his team a single point.

That way, the scores would add up more like baseball than a series of decimals compiled while teams are competing on different events with uneven scoring possibilities.

"It sounds like a radical change. The brilliance of it is it's not really," Spring said. "It's a simple format change. ... It's still the same elite level gymnastics going on. It's just the way you determine the team champion of that day."

He'd even change the championship to a 16-team, March Madness-style bracket - complete with a Final Four.

Spring intends to present his idea to rejuvenate the sport and help it blossom again at a meeting of the NCAA coaches on Thursday, in hopes of getting it approved for use in the 2013-14 season.

Whether it goes anywhere remains to be seen, but it's the kind of dialogue that exists in a sport that's in survival mode. Even Oklahoma coach Mark Williams, who opposes Spring's idea, is happy to hear discussions about what could be done to strengthen the sport.

"Having brackets might be a fun thing to do during the regular season, but I think our championships still need to still be one of those where we would qualify all the teams in and we have a one-night, winner-take-all kind of thing," Williams said. "That's how it's done at the Olympics."

In the end, the college sport needs the Olympics and - to a degree - the U.S. Olympic team relies on the colleges to provide training for its athletes. All but three of the 15 current U.S. national team members are in NCAA programs or came out of them.

"It's certainly valuable at this level and we're getting a lot of really good gymnasts out of the NCAA program right now," said Dennis McIntyre, the men's program director at USA Gymnastics. "They're doing a good job of developing high level athletes with these numbers. But obviously the more numbers we have, the stronger the overall program is."

USA Gymnastics even stepped in to provide a $150,000 donation to help keep Cal's program afloat.

Michigan coach Kurt Golder expressed the hope that the NCAA or U.S. Olympic Committee might be able to provide incentives for schools that sponsor men's gymnastics to keep programs from disappearing.

"I've seen our sport dwindle at the collegiate level, but yet when you look at the club level, it's bigger than ever. And we're more successful than ever," said Golder, who was part of Michigan's 1975 Big Ten championship team.

"When I was on a collegiate team, there were 168 teams and we were about 10th in the world. We were sometimes lucky to even make it to the Olympic games as a team. Now, we're up there consistently fighting for a medal even though we have fewer college programs. I'm concerned if it dwindles any more about our viability."