Kiwan Watts winning a silver medal at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships served as a reminder that he and Arizona State men’s gymnastics are still around.
A two-time national junior all-around champion, Watts suffered a shoulder injury in 2016 that threatened to derail his career.
“That set me into a depression,” Watts said. “I was in bed rest for a couple of months then to get the arm back to where it was was a real struggle. It took a while to gain my mental strength back.”
Around the same time, Watts’ collegiate future was in jeopardy because of academic issues and his mother suffered a heart attack. He was unable to qualify for a Division I school and admittedly “really wasn’t motivated to do much” while living at home in Richmond, Va.
Then, somewhat out of the blue, his career path fog cleared.
“Our operative word is opportunity,” said ASU men’s gymnastics coach Scott Barclay, who through alumni support has managed to keep the team alive for more than 25 years since it was dropped as a varsity sport in 1993.
Not just alive, but thriving. The Sun Devils have won 13 consecutive USA Gymnastics collegiate club national titles and currently have 55 gymnasts competing on two travel teams, training out of Barclay’s Aspire Kids Sports Center in Chandler.
Watts took a chance by moving west and enrolling at Mesa Community College (he still could compete for ASU because the club program is not under NCAA regulations).
He won the collegiate club all-around title in 2018 and 2019 and was 15th all-around at the 2018 U.S. Championships.
Nationals this year, held Aug. 8-11 in Kansas City, actually didn’t go as well as in 2018 for Watts (21st all-around) except on vault, where he tied for second with Timothy Wang at 28.800 (two routines combined), just behind Shane Wiskus (28.850).
“It was a really big deal for me because I’ve never placed on the podium (as a senior) at U.S. Championships,” Watts said. “It was probably the greatest feeling of all my competitions so far. I’ll cherish that moment forever.
“I figured out what makes my vault better is to slightly ease up on the run (early) then go faster at the end to give me the power I needed and control” to hit his landing.
Watts, whose first name is pronounced Kee-wan turned 23 on Aug. 12. He wasn’t born when ASU had a varsity men’s gymnastics team, from 1958-68 under coach Norris Steverson and 1969-93 under Don Robinson with Barclay serving as assistant coach following his ASU career (1975-78).
The Sun Devils won the NCAA title in 1986, the same year that Dan Hayden won national titles on still rings and high bar.
Watts is the first ASU men’s gymnast to medal at U.S. Championships since Hayden.
“The kid is super talented, but didn’t have a place to go,” Barclay said. “He would have dropped out of the sport two years ago. We provided him that opportunity to go to school, get an education (in construction management) and at the same time further his gymnastics career.”
In 2020, ASU will host the USA Gymnastics men’s collegiate nationals (varsity and club divisions) for the first time in 20 years.
Only 14 Division I schools still offer men’s gymnastics — Illinois-Chicago is the latest casualty — so the recently formed Gymnastics Association of College Teams that includes ASU is critical in keeping the sport alive at a club level.
“We still have a lot to offer the community, and I know we have a lot to offer gymnastics,” Barclay said.
And a lot to offer Watts, now a junior, who still aspires to make the U.S. senior national team.
“I came out here with nothing and turned it into something,” he said. “I want to keep on going until I get to certain heights.”
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