How the NIL has Broadened Horizons for Elite Gymnasts
By Meghan Gallary
Before the NCAA’s 2021 NIL ruling, elite gymnasts were forced to choose between training for the Olympics and competing at a collegiate level. Now that athletes can be compensated for their name, image, and likeness, talented athletes who have dedicated most of their lives to gymnastics can finally partake in both.
In addition to eliminating a tough choice for many gymnasts, the ruling has also transformed the sport’s college recruitment process. College coaches now pick new assets from a much wider pool of candidates, and some schools have even hired in-house NIL staff to provide their student-athletes with the education and resources needed to maximize profitable opportunities. In the past year and a half, fans and former gymnasts have marveled at the options now in front of current athletes, who can chase their dreams of becoming an Olympian, without worrying about giving up continuing their sport in college.
Grace McCallum grew up in Cambridge, Minnesota as one of seven children, and fell in love with gymnastics when she was five years old. She trained at Twin City Twisters in Champlin, Minnesota, and homeschooled through Connections Academy to focus on her athletic endeavors. McCallum turned elite at age fifteen and competed at the 2017 U.S Classic, where she placed first on vault and third in the all-around. In 2018, she became a member of the Senior National Team. Over the next two years, she worked her way to the top, medaling multiple times at Pacific Rim, Pan American, Nationals, and Worlds.
In 2021, she earned a spot on the postponed 2020 United States Summer Olympic Team alongside Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, and Jordan Chiles. At the Tokyo Olympic games, McCallum competed on floor, bars, vault, and beam during the team final, and helped USA earn their silver medal. The moment was surreal for McCaullum, who later told Olympics.com: “I achieved the goal of mine that I’ve had since I was like four or five years old. So it’s just crazy to think about.”
McCallum’s lasting impact on the sport was far from over after Tokyo. Thanks to the new NIL rule, she signed her National Letter of Intent with the University of Utah in November of 2020. When her season with the Utes began in 2021, she made history as one of the first Olympic gymnasts to compete in college. McCallum has had great success so far, scoring a perfect 10 as a freshman in a meet against UCLA, and helping Utah clinch their second Pac-12 title.
McCallum told Olympics.com that she’s now “gained a different kind of love” for the sport. She explains that “elite can be really hard on you emotionally, mentally and physically, but in college, it’s just always so fun having a team that’s there to support you and wants you to do your best.” Four out of five of her Olympic teammates also compete collegiately: Sunisa Lee at Auburn University, Jordan Chiles at UCLA, Jade Carey at Oregon State, and current teammate MyKayla Skinner at the University of Utah.
Olivia Dunne was raised in Hillsdale, New Jersey and started gymnastics when she was three years old at the Eastern Academy of Paramus. Her elite career began in 2014 when she turned twelve. Before the end of high school, she competed in five U.S. Classics, four American Classics, and four National Championships. Although her standings left the Olympics out of reach, Dunne has found success in her collegiate career. In 2019, she accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend Louisiana State University. Since becoming a tiger, she has helped the team contend for two SEC Championships and the 2021 NCAA Championship.
While many of her performances have earned nearly perfect scores, Dunne’s impeccable uneven bars routine isn’t the only thing that sets her apart from other college gymnasts. Since 2020, she has gained almost 7 million followers on TikTik and over 3 million followers on Instagram, making her one of the most well-known NCAA athletes on social media. As a result of the NIL ruling, Dunne is now able to profit from her persona through brand sponsorship and collaboration deals.
After making almost $2M last year, Dunne became the biggest NIL earner in women's collegiate sports. Working with major brands like Vuori, American Eagle, BodyArmour, and GrubHub is a dream-come-true for Dunne, who told Today: “It’s hard to wrap my head around at times, but it’s very cool that someone in college has the opportunity to do that now.” Now a junior at LSU, Dunne continues to polish her gymnastics skills and grow her brand, hoping to turn it into a business after graduation.
Many other collegiate gymnasts have also been leaning into their social media platforms to boost their NIL earnings. Including Dunne, four of the top ten female NIL earners are at school for gymnastics, and each of the other three were Olympians at Tokyo. Sunisa Lee (#2), Jordan Chiles (#9) and Jade Carey (#10) utilize their Instagram and TikTok accounts in a similar way to Dunne, getting creative to connect with fans and grow their engagement rates.
Compared to Dunne and McCallum, Pre-NIL gymnasts have had a far different experience. Jenny Rowland, head gymnastics coach at the University of Florida and former Arizona State University gymnast, competed decades before the NIL ruling was passed. Despite winning the 1988 American Classic, she chose to go the college route. Rowland told ESPN: “The majority of the past Olympic team is in college and still doing international competitions. I get goosebumps just thinking of it. There is a new path being carved out by these young women.” And Rowland is right – since the passing of NIL, collegiate gymnasts all over the United States can finally gain both financial security and an education without the pressures of deciding between NCAA and the Olympics.