When she walked into Monday’s meeting, Sarah Jean Marshall was the head coach of the Seattle Pacific University women’s gymnastics team. She was also one of its most accomplished alums, an eight-time All American and three-time captain who was named Division II Gymnast of the Year in 2007. She had poured 15 years of her life into Falcon gymnastics — four as an athlete, 10 as an assistant and one more as head coach.
When she left, her position — and the program — both ceased to exist.
SPU announced publicly on Monday afternoon what Marshall learned on Monday morning: that its women’s gymnastics program had been discontinued, effective immediately. The Falcons Gymnastics Center will also cease operations and will no longer host youth camps, and the accompanying club team will no longer be sponsored by SPU.
A university release stated that “the decision to discontinue gymnastics came following an extensive review of the state of that sport in the NCAA Division II structure. Although the assessment and decision began prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and rests on its own merit, the adverse effects (of) the pandemic on the program’s funding model expedited this decision.”
At no point did that “extensive review” include Marshall. She told The Times in a phone interview on Monday that she believed the purpose of the in-person meeting — her first with SPU’s leadership since the COVID-19 quarantine began — was to discuss reopening campus and the program’s facilities.
Instead, it was the opposite.
“We had no (prior) conversations surrounding gymnastics being dropped,” said Marshall, who was named Mountain Pacific Sports Federation coach of the year in March. “There were no considerations of making adjustments to our program. It was a very quick (meeting) process with no room for conversation. I don’t feel that I’ve been given any clear, definite reasons why this decision was made at this time.”
When asked on Tuesday why Marshall was not consulted during the aforementioned program review, SPU athletics director Jackson Stava said that “certainly I understand coach Marshall’s concern and frustration by not being a part of the process of making this decision. However, with the incredibly sensitive nature of a decision like this, university leadership just didn’t feel that it would be effective to have Sarah be a part of it.
“Certainly if the decision were being made based on actions of her team or actions of her coaching staff — their performance, their culture — absolutely we would have engaged her. But this review was more about the long-term future and viability of gymnastics for us at Seattle Pacific.”
That review, Stava said, was conducted by “athletics leaders along with the senior leadership team on campus, a select group of faculty and then ultimately the board here at SPU.”
As for Marshall, she had weekly Zoom meetings throughout the COVID-19 quarantine with an associate athletics director, and there was never any hint or suggestion that the program might be in peril. On the contrary, “We were planning for the future,” she said. “We were making plans for how to reopen the gym and doing all of these things that just don’t make sense when this big of a decision is about to occur.”
Which made the results of Monday’s meeting all the more unfathomable — and not just for Marshall.
“My first thought went to my student-athletes — the pictures of their faces just coming up in my mind and imagining what this news was going to mean to them, flipping their lives in an insane way,” she said. “It was really important for me to be able to support them and be there for them in such a difficult time, obviously at the same time still processing myself and trying to figure out what this means.
“We did have a Zoom call where our AD spoke to them and shared the news. You could see that they were shocked and devastated. This is an opportunity that they worked really hard for that’s just being stripped from them.”
Added Stava: “Certainly (Monday) was the hardest day that I’ve had as a professional, to this point, without question. With that being said, I fully understand that no one has empathy for me today, and I wouldn’t expect that. I understand the impact this has on so many, as do all of those involved in the decision, and that’s what made it so hard.”
Until Monday, SPU’s women’s gymnastics program consisted of Marshall, assistant coaches Kaytianna McMillan and Ellen Smith, team manager Zahra Lawal and 20 student-athletes. In April, McMillan was named the Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association’s assistant coach of the year.
The university release stated that scholarships for Marshall’s student-athletes — including grants awarded to incoming students beginning in fall 2020 — will be honored. SPU gymnasts seeking to continue their careers at another institution will be released without penalty and are free to transfer immediately.
But the effects of Monday’s decision will also be felt outside the program.
“This is not just SPU gymnastics. It’s also Falcon gymnastics,” Marshall said. “We run a club inside of our gym in our facility, and that has benefited thousands of families over the years. It’s an outreach of the university. It’s a direct line of connection between the neighborhoods surrounding and beyond that to our campus. We have hundreds of families coming here every day.
“For those families to see what SPU is all about, that is like a daily vision for them to see firsthand, ‘This is SPU. This is loving and caring and encouraging and striving for your goals.’ Those doors are closing, and that affects all of those families as well. I know that they’re all struggling with the news a lot.”
Marshall is understandably struggling as well. Her words on Monday were punctuated with deep, pained pauses — with tears and strained sighs. With pride and disappointment. She mourned the end of something that meant so much to so many — a program that produced three team national champions, 32 individual national championships and 221 All-America awards since its inception in 1974.
And, more importantly, a program that produced great people.
“We have our share of athletic success, but I think the defining aspect of this program is the people who graduate — our alumni, our athletes who go on to do big things,” Marshall said. “I have been very lucky to be a part of that, and that is not something that I want to see end.”
On Monday, the end arrived without warning. And unfortunately, that’s not unique. The Associated Press reported on May 30 that 97 teams had been cut by four-year colleges this offseason in the continued wake of COVID-19. The sudden recession has already caused considerable casualties throughout college athletics.
As for gymnastics, the sport has experienced significant downsizing at the Division II level. Only five other DII schools sponsor women’s gymnastics, and those nearest to Seattle are more than 2,000 miles away — in Texas and Missouri. From a financial standpoint, Monday’s result is unsurprising.
But Marshall says that she deserved to have a voice in the decision.
“Absolutely, I wish it was a conversation that could have been had,” she said. “It was stated that this was a conversation that had been going on for a long amount of time, and I think it’s pretty irresponsible for an athletic department and university to have this depth of discussion without considering other perspectives and other knowledge.
“As a coach, you know most about your program. If there were changes that needed to be made, those needed to be voiced and communicated. But that was not the case.”
Instead, it’s all over. Starting Tuesday, SPU’s former gymnasts will attempt to make sense of their circumstances. Some will transfer. Others will stay. And Marshall will move forward.
But she’ll never forget.
“I have a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old, so they’re the center of my world,” she said. “I’m grateful that I have the support of an amazing husband, and I know that we’ll be OK.
“But that will never take away from the pain of this decision.”