Julia (Zimmerman) Sharpe has had an impressive gymnastics career. As a member of the MIT women’s gymnastics team from 2005-2009, she was the Division III National All-Around Champion not once, but twice. She was also a 14-time All-American, which in 2009 tied her for the most All-American titles in the history of the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (the governing body of Division III collegiate gymnastics). Julia’s senior year at MIT was my freshman year at Rhode Island College. In fact, my first ever college gymnastics meet was against MIT, and I can remember watching Julia compete and thinking to myself, “who is that girl?” Her gymnastics was powerful and dynamic, and she had a certain, inexpressible spark about her that made her stand out and commanded the attention of everyone in the gym.
Julia’s skill set and gymnastics prowess could have arguably given her the choice of any number of Division I programs that would have offered her a full scholarship, but her first priority was her education. “I fell in love with MIT during a summer program called the Women's Technology Program that introduces women to engineering. I knew it was the perfect place for me to pursue engineering, and I was very lucky that we had a varsity team at the time.” And despite MIT’s Division III status, Julia’s gymnastic ability qualified her to compete at Division I Regionals as a sophomore.
Unfortunately, MIT eliminated their men’s and women’s gymnastics programs after the 2009 season, which was a devastating blow to Division III gymnastics. Luckily, some of the former members decided to start MIT’s Gymnastics Club and continue to compete. Dozens of colleges have gymnastics clubs, where anyone and everyone of any skill level can join if they want to. The NAIGC (National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs) is the governing body, and their motto is, “for the love of the sport.” The NAIGC holds a National Championship every year and any club, men or women, regardless of roster size, can go and compete.
Julia retired from gymnastics for two years, and helped to coach MIT’s new club team. But not everyone who competed for MIT’s varsity team stayed on to compete for their club program, and as time passed, the numbers started to dwindle. Members of the team begged her to come back, and she did. “I thought that if we won club nationals, more girls would be interested in joining the team. We won 2 national titles, but the numbers haven't improved.”
The numbers for MIT’s men’s team, at only two members, were even more dire than the women. And that’s when Julia had an idea. “Someone pointed out to me (jokingly), that according to the NAIGC website, cross-gender competition is allowed. I decided to start training in men’s gymnastics. I wanted to try to contribute and help build the program back up before it disappeared. It’s really upsetting watching the death spiral of men’s NCAA gymnastics and feeling like there’s nothing I can do.” Men’s gymnastics is different from women’s. Women have four events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. Men have six: pommel horse, still rings, parallel bars, high bar, vault, and floor exercise.
Training men’s events certainly proved to be a challenge for Julia, particularly because when she first started, there was no men’s coach for MIT. Much of what she learned, she learned on her own with feedback from her male teammates. Despite having competed in gymnastics her whole life, mastering the basics of men’s gymnastics was difficult. She also noticed a lot of new injuries appearing, particularly in her shoulders (from training on rings), and in her wrists and forearms (from pommel horse). “I've had a lot of physical therapy and many visits to the chiropractor, and I think I'm finally settling into a good place with my body after 2 years.”
Men’s gymnastics also follows a different scoring system than women. Women’s gymnastics (with the exception of the international elite level) follows the 10.0 scoring system, where the maximum score for a performance is the iconic “Perfect 10.0”. Men’s gymnastics follows the open-ended scoring system, where there is a difficulty score and an execution score. The more difficult the routine, the higher the score. In women’s collegiate and Junior Olympic gymnastics, difficulty is not necessarily rewarded. In men’s gymnastics, it is. Julia is capable of performing a front-handspring front layout vault, which is a tremendously difficult vault that female Division I gymnasts don’t even perform. Unfortunately, performing that vault in NAIGC women’s gymnastics (which follows USAG Level 9 Rules) would be worth the same as performing it in the tucked shape, which is a decidedly easier vault. “Why do a difficult vault if you wouldn’t even be rewarded for it,” Julia argues. “It was hard for me to be motivated to train new tricks just to perform worse (read: I like to win). In men’s gymnastics, I get rewarded for doing harder gymnastics.”
Though they might still be called “gymnastics”, men’s and women’s gymnastics are vastly different from one another. One of the other reasons why Julia has enjoyed competing in men’s gymnastics is that she gets to learn new things: “I could maybe learn one new skill per event each year at the level I was at in women’s gymnastics. In men’s gymnastics, I learn new skills all the time!”
The reaction that most people get when they watch Julia compete in men’s gymnastics is “how?” In the NAIGC, where participation is the #1 priority, anyone of any gender can compete in either realm. The only rule is that an athlete cannot compete in both women’s events and men’s events in the same competition. This year, at NAIGC Nationals, Julia placed third in the all-around in her session of men’s preliminaries, which made her the first woman to ever qualify to NAIGC men’s all-around finals, where she placed 10th on high bar, and 17th in the all-around.
I asked Julia if she had faced any backlash or negativity from people, and she told me that people have been very supportive. “My teammates have been awesome. The teams we compete against are always really friendly… I've had lots of people, both men and women, come up to me and tell me that I've been an inspiration to them, which is really cool.” The only time where Julia had faced discrimination was earlier in the season when they competed against Springfield College (an NCAA varsity program) at the New England Invitational: “Even though we were not following NCAA rules (alumni on our team who did not have NCAA eligibility were allowed to compete), the Springfield administration told me that I could not compete because of my gender. MIT's administration made no effort to fight Springfield's ruling.”
But Julia is used to being undervalued because of her gender. “As a female engineer, I spend all day trying to prove that I’m just as good at my job as my male counterparts.” In her professional life, and in her life as a gymnast, Julia has broken through barriers and proven that women are just as smart, just as strong, and just as capable. I’ve seen a lot of gymnastics in my lifetime, but watching Julia compete has to be one of the most incredible and inspiring things I have seen in my time with this sport.
So what advice does Julia have for young women? “I think a lot of women are held back just because they don’t believe they are capable… It's really important to have confidence and believe you are capable of whatever you set your mind to. I feel like a lot of women are quick to assume that they are incapable just because they can't do something right away… I don’t want other women to feel like there’s anything they can’t do just because of their gender… Here’s me trying to prove that they are capable of anything!”
Watch Julia's video from NAIGC Nationals!
About the Author
Coach Sarah is a former Rhode Island College gymnast, NCGA National qualifier, All-American, current gymnastics coach and judge, and contributor for the gymnastics news source, The Gymternet. Find out what's going on at Spectrum and learn more about the incredible sport of gymnastics!