The HBCU Vaulting Into Gymnastics History | Crooked Media
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February 21, 2023
What A Day
The HBCU Vaulting Into Gymnastics History

In This Episode

  • Fisk University made history in January when it became the first historically Black college to launch a women’s gymnastics program. Head coach Corrinne Tarver tells us about her journey from being the first Black gymnast to win an all-around NCAA title, to training the next generation of trailblazers.






Juanita Tolliver: It’s Tuesday, February 21st. I’m Juanita Tolliver and this is What A Day, this Black History Month, the What A Day team is excited to bring you stories about Black history that are happening in real time. And we’re excited to follow up our recent conversation about the Netflix documentary Descendant with an exciting story about the Fisk University gymnastics team. Wait, you didn’t know that Fisk had a gymnastics team? Well, let me clue you in. And this was a personal story for me y’all as a Tennessee girl who loves gymnastics. For our listeners who may not know, Fisk University is a 157 year old historically Black liberal arts college in Nashville, Tennessee, that enrolls about 1000 students per year. And this athletic season, the Fisk University Bulldogs became the very first HBCU gymnastics team to ever compete in the NCAA. Which is huge. But with their incredible coach, Corrinne Tarver, it shouldn’t be a surprise. Coach Tarver is not just any coach, y’all. She was a powerhouse gymnast at the University of Georgia, leading them to multiple team titles. And she was the 1989 NCAA all around national champion, the first Black woman to ever win the title. So she knows a thing or two about making Black history. And on top of all of that legacy, she also serves as the Fisk University Athletic director. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better leader for Fisk Gymnastics in their inaugural season. I had an opportunity to catch up with Coach Tarver between her gymnastics meets to dig into her historic gymnastics team and their season, as well as how now is a great time for Black girls in gymnastics. When we have Olympians like Jordan Chiles and Simone Biles and when Black women filled the entire podium for the first time ever at the 2022 U.S. Gymnastics Championship tournament. I started by asking Coach Tarver what it feels like to be part of that momentum and making Black history in real time. Take a listen to our conversation. 


Corrinne Tarver: It’s surreal. You know, I tell people I knew that this was going to be a big deal. I just didn’t know it would be like this big. It’s necessary. It was needed. It’s overdue. But it was still more than I think any of us really expected to have like this much interest in a small college in Nashville with a thousand students. You know, we’re just kind of taking it one day at a time. It’s funny because we get recognized all over. I don’t remember the last time that we’ve flown that we haven’t been recognized in the airport. At first the girls were like, that’s so weird and that’s so creepy that they’re just coming up to us and I said, No, you’re a celebrity now. This is what happens when you’re a celebrity. And we love it and we want that support and we want to bring awareness to HBCUs, to college gymnastics, to women of color in college gymnastics. We have girls on other teams that have come up to either myself or other members of the team and thanked us, even though they love where they’re going to school and they love their gymnastics team and their future alma mater. They are so happy and so proud to have this gymnastics be a part of the NCAA now. There are members of their team that said, hey, you know, thank you for doing this. Thank you for paving the way for, you know, these future young Black gymnasts or minority gymnasts that want to do both an HBCU and gymnastics. 


Juanita Tolliver: I appreciate that because it’s a sign of respect. And so I hope your your team and you feel that because y’all are respected everywhere you go. And I’m glad that the other teams are making it known. And I also want to recognize that you’re no stranger to making history yourself as the first Black gymnast to win the all around NCAA title in 1989. I got the chills watching clips of you from 1986 doing full layouts like you were doing Simone Biles before Simone Biles like the power, the structure, everything was there. And so take me back to the beginning because I believe you started gymnastics at your local Y, is that right? 


Corrinne Tarver: Actually, I started a little bit before that, it was like a Turners? But as far as like really starting, it was at a YWCA, and we had to bring the equipment in and we had to put the equipment away every single practice because they also used it for basketball. And they refused to dedicate the space just for gymnastics. And so eventually I kind of outgrew that and went to a gym that was just like a dedicated private club that had the training and the knowledge to be able to bring athletes to the top level. I went from 6 hours a week to 20 hours a week of training. I got out of school every day at one o’clock and took the train from where I grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, up to Stamford, Connecticut. So I was crossing state lines every day. And then I walked and hopped on a bus that took me to the gym. 


Juanita Tolliver: Wow. So knowing your journey, knowing your experience, knowing how much work you did to get where you are, how does that inform how you mentor and train and coach your team at Fisk? 


Corrinne Tarver: Well, for one thing, I don’t accept anything less than your best because I know how hard I had to work in order to do what I did. And I also remind them that, you know, you put in all these years of club gymnastics, all those hours to do this, to come and do college gymnastics. So do it well. Do it to the best of your ability every single time you step out there. And you should feel like you did the best you could. And if you can walk away from the competition saying that, then you know you’ve achieved your goal. You know, we always want to do better than what we think we’re capable of and there’s a lot of girls on our team that are learning that that they’re capable of doing more than they think they are. But that comes with experience, that comes with learning. We have a team of mostly freshmen, so they had to learn what college gymnastics is about. They had to learn how to pace themselves. They have to learn how to compete on less training and they’re not used to that. So at first they kind of thought, there’s no way I could be successful because we only trained two days this week. That’s okay. We trained ourselves in the preseason so that we don’t have to do as much because we never get out of shape, we never stop. And now they’re learning, oh, I can go up one day of practice or two days of practice and be just fine. 


Juanita Tolliver: And you mentioned they’re all freshmen. So as you’re recruiting for 2023, they’re going to be great mentors next year for the next class coming in. So how is recruiting going and what are you most excited about when you have those two different years of athletes you’ll be working with? 


Corrinne Tarver: Well, we do have a couple of transfers, so a couple of upperclassmen. But it’s funny because I’ve had several of our freshmen come up to me and go, okay, coach, so for next year when we come in in the fall, we’re going to make sure we do this and do this so that we can make sure that we’re ready. And I’m like, ah you’re starting to understand huh?


Juanita Tolliver: I love that energy. 


Corrinne Tarver: Yeah you’re starting to figure it out. They’re already looking at what they want to do differently next year or how they want to approach things next year to make sure that they’re ready because like, we’re not going to be getting these scores next year. We’re going to have more people. We’ll have more depth. I’m like, aight.


Juanita Tolliver: Bet. Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: Let’s do it. Let’s do it.


Juanita Tolliver: Like challenge accepted. [laugh]


Corrinne Tarver: I said so so now you understand what you need to do to make sure you are ready for competition. Like, yeah, we got this and those freshmen coming in, they’re going to help us and we’re going to be ready and we’ll be able to help them along. And I’m like, alright. [laugh]


Juanita Tolliver: We have a lot more to cover in this conversation. And we’ll be right back after these ads. [music break] 




Juanita Tolliver: This is What A Day and I’m Juanita Tolliver. Let’s jump back into my conversation with Fisk University gymnastics coach Corrinne Tarver as we talk about other historically Black colleges and universities that might also be interested in starting their own gymnastics teams. The other people learning in this are not only me and the general public, but other HBCUs who are watching y’all and potentially inspired to start their own program. So uh what’s your message to fellow HBCUs who are inspired but might not know exactly where to start? 


Corrinne Tarver: You know, there have been quite a bit of inquiries just wanting to get information and just wanting to see, I think a lot are doing a wait and see. Because, you know, when we announced last year and so a lot of people were like, oh, okay, let’s see how this goes. And it blew up and they’re seeing this and they’re like, Oh, wow, a small gymnastics program can get this kind of hype. Obviously, it’s not going to happen for everybody. We’re the first but if you go out there and do exciting gymnastics, people want to see. So when we do our floor routines, it’s so hyped up and so good that people are like excited to see us. And it’s kind of like that whole concept that people will go to an HBCU football game to see the band. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: To see the majorettes. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: And that’s kind of how we’re starting to become known is that our floor routines and our dance and our elevation of that choreography, we’re almost getting our own little niche when it comes to the sport of gymnastics. 


Juanita Tolliver: And you have been a showman from the beginning. Like every time you landed and stuck a move. Like I’m just literally the way you just had pride in your movements came through. And I’m sure everyone saw it, the judges saw it. I mean, you won a national title, so of course it did. And I’m sure that’s translating into your team now. [laughing]


Corrinne Tarver: I was a ham. I loved having all the eyes on me. I mean, I just remember the NCAAs that year that we won. I saluted and stepped on the floor and then the crowd roared because somebody else for another team like they were clapping and I stepped out of my starting pose and I waited till it quieted down and I was like, okay, everybody eyes on me now. And the funny thing is, is that as an adult, I was the complete opposite. If you talk to people who know me, they will be like, she’s never in pictures or we have to force her to take a picture. We had to force her to get in front of the camera because I was like, I’ll be behind the camera. I’ll take your picture. And I remember I used to always think I had my moment to shine, you know? I mean, that was college. That was my gymnastics career. That was where I wanted to be, front and center. I was like, I’ve done that. I’ve done that part of my career. Now I’m okay stepping into the background and helping others to shine, helping other people to get their moment, helping other people to be that ham that everybody wants to see. So it’s kind of interesting because now I’ve been thrust back into the front of the cameras– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: –with interviews and stuff like that and, you know, I don’t mind. It’s not that I hate it, but it’s just it’s kind of ironic. I’m more about trying to help other people to have the fun I did. I mean, I loved it– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: Every second of it. Like you said, you could see when I stepped out on the floor, I absolutely loved what I was doing. And I want my athletes to have that same experience, to love what they’re doing, to know that because of how dynamic they’re tumbling is and how amazing the choreography is and their personalities that everybody in that arena wants to see what they’re doing. 


Juanita Tolliver: In addition to loving what they’re doing. I want to make sure that you and your team have what you need to do it well. So how can the public support Fisk gymnastics in the future? 


Corrinne Tarver: We have fundraising that’s always going. Like I said, we are a small school. So that was one of the attractions, is that you could do it without having to break the bank. And we have to pay for things like, you know, we don’t want to go in vans. I want them to go on, on a bus. I want them to be able to have a bus when we’re at a meet. At the beginning of the season, we started out with vans and it was so hard because with the luggage and everything else and people sitting with luggage on their laps and I said, you know what? They don’t deserve this. We need to treat them the same as we would if we had a PWI. So now it’s like, you know what, we’re going to do busses. Well, that’s not cheap. [laughing]. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: The difference between getting vans and a bus is probably about $2000-$3000 every single weekend. But also we are looking to build a gym on campus because right now we work out at a private club that we basically rent space, but we are limited on when we can be in there and it’s difficult with classes. During the fall, we never had our team all together except on a Saturday or Sunday because the way classes were we could never get the entire team at the same time for more than a half an hour. And that’s just really hard when you’re trying to build a program and you have so many new faces to try to build that, you know, sense of family and that camaraderie, we want to give them the gym, the locker rooms, the training room, the offices and stuff like that. We want to be able to give to these girls something similar to what they would have at a PWI. But we’re always trying to raise money for operating budgets. So for travel, for, like I said, to get busses instead of vans, you know, even just getting like some of the equipment that most people don’t think about, like heat pads that I get for one of my girls that has like her hip gets really tight. And so I got this hip thing that she can put on that just keeps her warm without restricting her while she’s– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: –you know waiting for her turn to go. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Corrinne Tarver: The massage guns, our girls use them constantly. We were having like five or six that needed them, so having only one wasn’t working. A lot of times people don’t even realize that those little things, how important they are. 


Juanita Tolliver: That was my conversation with coach Corrinne Tarver, athletic director and head coach of the Fisk gymnastics team and the 1989 NCAA all around champion. And I’m so grateful to Coach Tarver for being open and honest about what it takes to build a team from the ground up at an HBCU. Y’all she kept it 100. To learn more about the Fisk University gymnastics team, check them out on Instagram at @FiskUGymnastics where they also live stream some of their meets and check out our show notes for how you can support this growing team. [music break] That’s all for today’s show. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review and tell your friends to listen. What A Day is also a nightly newsletter, so check it out and subscribe at I’m Juanita Tolliver and let’s go Fisk Bulldogs. They’re having a great season, y’all. I hope you all get to see them. [music break] What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jocey Coffman and our executive producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.