Fight for Iowa

Todd Strada

August 21st, 2020.

It’s a date I’ll never forget. 

On that day, I received the sort of news that can turn even the happiest of days on its head.

An ordinary day turned anything but when an ESPN alert and a message from a friend popped in at the same time.

“I’m sorry. I just heard the news,” my friend said.

That sense of dread overtook me as my eyes instantly hovered over the ESPN alert. That’s when I learned the University of Iowa was cutting the men’s gymnastics program. For me, as a former Iowa gymnast, it was the sort of gut punch that’s hard to put into words.

The initial feeling of shock and pain quickly devolved into nausea. I remember hearing the news at noon and not being able to work the rest of the day.

My lifelong journey through the sport came flooding back at once. It wasn’t only about competing or being the best at something. It was a character-driven expedition that created the core foundation of the man I am today.

And I know I’m not alone.

The pain and nausea has now been replaced with hope amid a galvanizing effort to reverse the decision. Our goal is to ensure these athletes have the same platform we all benefitted from in a program that taught us more about life than winning and losing.

I don’t even want to think about where I’d be without those lessons, and my heart hurts even more to ponder where the future of the sport would be.

Lessons that go beyond sport

As long as I can remember in terms of forming memories, I was a gymnast.

I got started because I had too much energy as a kid. Ask any gymnast how they got started, and there’s a good chance they’ll probably tell you the same thing.

My parents needed me to convert that energy into a more productive source as opposed to annoying them. I just remember being intrigued by the fact that it wasn’t the same repetitive moves over and over again. There was a sort of rare variety that came along with a sport that basically spanned 12 months a year.

More importantly, it challenged me mentally in ways I would have never believed possible. I’ve always found it fascinating that you had the ability to create these unique routines and master them. It was very different than any other sport I’d ever experienced.

And it never felt boring.

I was the youngest kid on a team of older members. They were the idols, heroes and mentors I looked up to that were competing, succeeding and eventually coming away with college scholarships. There was always this dream and drive within me to be noticed by them. I wanted to be like them.

That dream kept me motivated and super goal-oriented. It never mattered whether the goal was actually obtainable or not. Yet, it was simply the pursuit of that goal that kept me pushing forward. Being exposed to those lessons at such an early age were transformative years in my life. 

As a shareholder in an HR consulting firm today, I constantly deal with responsibilities I doubt I’d be able to handle if I wasn’t put through those circumstances gymnastics has brought into my life. 

I’m a leader that now drives my own team at work with appointed goal-setting—basically, the same things I’ve learned through my time as a college Division I athlete.

Everything I’ve learned as an athlete has made me who I am today as a parent and a businessman. It all came from the foundation and the fundamentals of time and leadership. I was able to get an education while competing at a sport that ultimately helped shape the man I became after college.

And I wouldn’t change a thing.

An inevitable ripple effect

When I think of everything college gymnastics has done for me, I can’t help but consider the wider impact this decision could have on the sport as a whole.

College gymnastics is a proven pathway to the Olympics, and by further removing it from existence, you’re shattering dreams and diverting those athletes to other sports.

People stop dreaming when the platform ceases to exist.

It would essentially reduce the talent pool for the United States by not having these programs out there. Gymnastics is an individual sport, but there’s also a team component to it at the collegiate and Olympic level. The team scoring system eliminates the loner aspects of the sport.

It’s no longer just about you in a situation where you’re looked upon by other teammates to compete successfully.

It produces a different kind of pressure with a new set of mental hurdles that don’t exist in a junior environment. If you remove that path, you won’t have the same battle-tested athletes on the Olympic team.

It would eat at the sport as a whole.

College also opens up the ability for specialization to make it on the team.

Athletes have the chance to excel by simply being good at one event. 

Even as an all-around athlete, the bulk of my team was composed of two-event or three-event guys.

It’s the best way to make a team and another reason why the college system is so vital for Olympic success.

The pursuit of excellence

Along with preparing student-athletes for a possible journey to the Olympics, college gymnastics also prepares them for a real world that can often feel daunting after sports. 

The Iowa gymnasts had some of the highest GPAs at the school when I was there. I’m not naïve enough to believe we were ever a money-making sport like football, but I do know the successful student-athletes Iowa produced on our team and others have impacted society in their own industries.

We have CEOs, professors and business leaders. We may not be professionals in the sport that we played, but many of us have gone on to be professionals doing wonderful things based on what we learned and cultivated at Iowa as student-athletes.

It’s the pursuit of excellence in every sense.

In hopes of keeping the #savehawkeyesports movement alive, I’m coordinating and reaching out to alumni from different eras. We all want to do something, but it must be a united effort to have any form of an impact. We’re stronger when we stand together. Former athletes, coaches, parents, fans—it’s an all-hands on deck sort of situation driving this movement.

Not only are people from the gymnastics community getting involved, but those from the recently dropped tennis and swimming programs are joining in the fight as well. It serves as a reminder that this movement goes beyond the resurrection of one sport.

The same unity and strength are felt across the spectrum of all non-revenue sports, and it’s greater than I could have ever imagined. That alone gives me hope.

We simply need to make sure that we stay relevant and top-of-mind. People need to hear the voices of those impacted by these decisions. 

You see, I started gymnastics with goals of one day making it on an Olympic team. While I never accomplished that, through perseverance, hard work and a deep love for the sport, I was able to accomplish a dream within a dream.

My only hope is for others to simply have the opportunity to do the same. 

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