Part Trailblazing, Part Homecoming: Morgan Price's Momentous Fisk Gymnastics Journey

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IFebruary 22, 2023

Morgan Price celebrates winning the vault while competing for Fisk at a meet in Las Vegas.
Morgan Price celebrates winning the vault while competing for Fisk at a meet in Las Vegas. Stew Milne/Getty Images

For Morgan Price, a first-year on Fisk University's brand-new gymnastics team, there are plenty of reasons to feel uncertain. But talking to the baby-faced 17-year-old, you wouldn't know it.

Speaking from a lobby of her dormitory in Nashville, Price is in a busy state—she just got back from class and has 15 minutes until a three-hour practice, after which she'll go back to her room to pack for a meet against Michigan and Denver in Ann Arbor. As Fisk's top all-arounder, she'll be expected to anchor the team with high scores on all four events.

If this stresses her out, you wouldn't know that. Instead, Price is at ease, with a bubbly and warm demeanor that belies an intensity that has placed the college freshman solidly in the annals of gymnastics history. This year, Fisk became the first historically Black college and university (HBCU) to compete in gymnastics. Widely covered in the media and soon to be the subject of a docuseries, Price and the rest of the team have received praise for blazing a trail for Black gymnasts, and for other HBCUs.

"It's been eye-opening," Price said of the media exposure. "I didn't know it was going to blow up that much."

To get there, though, it took a huge sacrifice: Price was a 5-star recruit on the path to NCAA stardom, with a full-ride scholarship to Arkansas, when she decided to instead compete for Fisk, a program without even its own gymnastics gym.

Arkansas is a top-25 NCAA program that has, as Morgan's mother, Marsha Price, puts it, "all the bells and whistles." That includes a giant inflatable pig the Razorbacks run through during the pre-meet light show at their 10,000-seat home arena. Directed by Olympic medalist Jordyn Wieber, Arkansas gymnasts enjoy all the trappings of an SEC school with a $2.6 billion endowment. As if that wouldn't be enough to attract a top recruit like Morgan, there's one thing Arkansas has that no school can match: her sister Frankie, a redshirt first-year.

In a gymnastics community that's largely about striving for just such an opportunity, how could she turn it down? Price's certainty as she begins her time at Fisk is telling: Maybe the risk she's taking is no risk at all.

When Price started at Fisk this past fall, it was the surprise ending to a typical journey for an American gymnast.

Originally from the Nashville suburb of Lebanon, Tennessee, the Price girls' promise in sports started even before they were born: Marsha was a cheerleader, and their father, Chris Price, was a Lebanon hometown hero who played minor league baseball.

The second of three sisters, Morgan took up gymnastics after seeing Frankie excel in the sport. Morgan remembers watching Frankie in the gym and being inspired.

"I always just watched her," she said. "I watched her work ethic in the gym."

They have similar strengths, she says, on the power events: vault and floor. And according to Marsha, they're both natural dancers.

The stable life the family enjoyed was rocked in 2009, when Chris died in a motorcycle accident. Morgan was four years old.

Chris Price with his three daughters, Frankie (right), Morgan (left) and Kristin.
Chris Price with his three daughters, Frankie (right), Morgan (left) and Kristin. Courtesy of Morgan Price

It was what Marsha calls a "tragic" time for the family. It was also when she realized that her girls needed more from their gymnastics training. They were progressing in the sport, but their gym wasn't likely to get them to the level they needed to be in order to be recruited by the top colleges.

"'What do I need to do to make sure I fulfill the duties and responsibilities of two parents, and not just one? What would [Chris] want for us?'" Marsha asked herself. "I knew that he would want me to do whatever it took to make sure they had the exposure that they needed."

They took the plunge. Four-and-a-half years after Chris' death, Marsha and her three girls moved to Coppell, Texas, so the girls could train at Texas Dreams Gymnastics.

Known for training U.S. national team members and some of the top NCAA prospects in the country, the gym was an easy choice. Still, the move was, as Marsha puts it, "a leap of faith." She sold her house and quit her job and left her extended family to move to a place where she knew no one.

Over time, it became clear that the risk would pay off. Frankie thrived at Texas Dreams, committing to Arkansas at just 14, and Morgan, as usual, followed suit. In 2021, she qualified for the Nastia Liukin Cup, placing third on bars; in 2022, she placed seventh on beam and third in the all-around at the Women's Development Program National Championships.

Morgan became a hot commodity for college programs, in part because her level of difficulty puts her on par with some of the best NCAA gymnasts in the country. She boasts a full-twisting Yurchenko on vault and has a one-and-a-half twist up her sleeve. On floor, her favorite event, she does a two-and-a-half twist and has trained a double layout, triple twist and full-in. At 16, Morgan visited five schools, with the hope of competing for an SEC program.

Morgan Price at the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2021.
Morgan Price at the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2021.Courtesy of Morgan Price

"I knew that [the SEC] had the most publicity, basically," she said. "I really liked the coaches at the SEC schools that I was looking at."

The playbook was laid out for Morgan to follow. Had she gone to Arkansas, she would have competed alongside her sister for team titles. She would also have a shot at individual NCAA Championships glory. She would have plenty of visibility to compete for NIL deals. The "Price girls" would stay together. It was practically written in the stars. All she had to do was sign on the dotted line.

As it turned out, Morgan has received plenty of attention outside of the SEC as a member of the first HBCU to take on gymnastics. The team was covered by CBS Sports, and a video of its first practice went viral on TikTok, amassing over 1 million views. After Price stuck her vault and earned a 9.90 at the team's first-ever meet, it was covered on CBS Mornings.

"Personally, I think we're getting more attention than other schools," she said. "It encourages me for the next meet, just to do even better."

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The reality outside the spotlight was not as shiny as the team took shape. The thing that makes Fisk gymnastics stand out is, in fact, something that leaves the program in a tenuous position. It is a team formed from scratch, with fewer resources than other schools—and, critically, no blueprint to follow.

"When I was recruiting, I had no answers," said Fisk head coach Corrinne Tarver of her conversations with inquiring families.

A former gymnast herself, Tarver is no stranger to being a first: She was the first Black gymnast to compete at the University of Georgia and the first Black gymnast to win an NCAA all-around individual championship. But when it came time to seek out recruits for Fisk, she was light on the specifics for her program. "I was selling them on a dream," she said.

Fisk is a small school, with around a thousand students. Many of the "bells and whistles" that teams like the Razorbacks enjoy are not found here. The team doesn't have its own gym, though it is working to raise money for one; instead, it uses two club gyms in the area, one of which is nearly an hour away. Its "home" for meets is a convention center. It doesn't have athlete dormitories or an athlete dining hall.

Then, of course, there are the challenges that come with building a new team in a limited time frame. When asked about the process, Tarver said, "It happened so fast." It was serendipitous too.

Board of Trustees member Frank Simmons learned about the lack of HBCU gymnastics programs at his Thanksgiving dinner in 2021. Determined to change this, he connected with Derrin Moore, founder of the nonprofit Brown Girls Do Gymnastics. Moore helped develop the program. Tarver was hired in March 2022 for a season that would begin early in 2023. Tarver describes the decision to take the job as "easy," but she hadn't even seen the campus when she accepted.

Starting from scratch means that most of the 16 women on the team are first-years. A few joined in the midst of injuries.

"We don't have a lot of depth," Tarver said ahead of the season.

Crucially, the lack of juniors and seniors means a dearth of athlete-to-athlete guidance that can help a team jell. The coach says many of her gymnasts were underestimated by other programs, and Price has emerged as a leader, but, as the team took shape last fall, that lack of veterans was "the biggest challenge we've faced."

The Fisk University gymnastics team at a meet in Las Vegas.
The Fisk University gymnastics team at a meet in Las Vegas. Stew Milne/Getty Images

One team member, Leeiah Davis, dropped out of the university shortly before the team's first meet. She said in an Instagram post that she experienced bullying and hazing during her time on the team, and that the administration did not take action. (Price declined to comment, as did Tarver and the university.)

But if the fall was "rough," to use Tarver's term, as of mid-February, Fisk was out there competing alongside some of the biggest names in college gymnastics. "Things are going really well!" Tarver wrote in an email. "The team is closer than it's ever been and I am seeing a lot of growth both as people and gymnasts. The booster club is working hard to raise awareness and funds."

Known as the Gymdogs, the team has not won any of its meets but is holding its own. In a January 16 meet in front of more than 9,000 spectators at Georgia that also included Ohio State and Rutgers, Price won the all-around individual contest, tying for first in the vault and third on the bars.

The lack of resources and established team leadership at Fisk were known unknowns going into the development of the team. Still, just as Tarver didn't hesitate to take the job, when Price heard that the program was starting up, she didn't just consider it, she pounced.

A school that was off her radar suddenly became all she could see: "All I knew was that they had an HBCU gymnastics team, and that's what I wanted to do." Price emailed her plan to Tarver, who, the coach said, was "shocked."

She wasn't the only one. Why would a gymnast like Price give up a school like Arkansas?

The wider sports world didn't know about the conflict that had been brewing in Price for years, one that many Black gymnasts have faced over the course of the sport's history: She wanted to go to an HBCU—"That was always the dream," she said—but none of the 107 schools had a team.

Fisk gymnasts celebrating in Las Vegas.
Fisk gymnasts celebrating in Las Vegas. Stew Milne/Getty Images

The lack of opportunity is almost fitting considering how the sport has treated women of color over the decades. While more Black and brown girls are participating in gymnastics than ever before and have topped podiums in recent years, Tarver said the podiums are deceptive.

"We're starting to be more dominant in the sport, but only in the sense that we are in the top spots," she said.

Moore's advocacy group Brown Girls Do Gymnastics has been lobbying for HBCUs to add gymnastics since 2016. She says that when she was growing up, she didn't know that college gymnastics existed, and she had no famous Black gymnasts to look up to. She looked up to Mary Lou Retton, "but she didn't look like me."

Moore noted that Black athletes may face micro or macro aggressions in the gym, citing stereotypes that follow Black gymnasts: That they will only be good on vault and floor, the "power" apparatus, and that they won't have "good lines," a euphemism for long, lean limbs.

Finding a safe space, then, may be enough for a competitor like Morgan Price. She's certainly not alone: Five-star basketball recruit Makur Maker chose to go to Howard in 2020, turning down an offer from UCLA. Volleyball players Bria and Cimone Woodard soon followed. Top football recruit Travis Hunter chose Jackson State the following year.

Finding the safety of a Black school may also mean competing under a different set of expectations.

"Expectations are always different for Black folks and brown folks" in a Black community, Moore said, adding that a team's score doesn't matter to her.

"Our community is just proud of them for taking such a step," she said of the Fisk gymnasts. "[This is] what Black girls do. We thrive, we push, even when we're not given a whole lot."

Moore started to cry when asked before the season how it would feel to see the team walk on the floor for its first meet. "I'm excited to see them on the floor," she said. "That's it. It's been a long time coming."

When Morgan Price speaks, there is no tremor in her voice as she enumerates her goals: 1) to go to the collegiate championships for Fisk's division (the team is in the NAIA, not the NCAA), 2) to get a 10 on every event, 3) to get the highest team score possible. None of this is out of reach, she knows.

She loved Arkansas and its program, but "my decision was based on me and what I felt was best for me." When asked about the facilities, she said, "We're not going to have all the resources that an SEC school would have." At the same time, "You don't have to have the biggest gym in the world to be able to have good gymnastics." After she graduates, she hopes to become a dentist.

"Anything she says she's going to do, she's going to do it," said Price's best friend from Texas Dreams, Haylee Hardin. Her kindness and her humor are two of Price's best traits, Hardin said, but her ability to hit routines is another. Price will claim she can stick five vaults in a row, Hardin said, and then she'll do it. Whenever Price needs a pep talk, Hardin said, all she had to do was to remind her, "Remember who you are."

Her willingness to give up an SEC spot for a new program may come from gymnastics, where calculated risk is something you learn to accept and even embrace.

Morgan Price competing on the uneven bars.
Morgan Price competing on the uneven bars. Stew Milne/Getty Images

"What do gymnasts do? They fall," said Moore. Every time a gymnast does a skill, she said, "It's a risk you're taking, but it's calculated." Knowing you can do one thing—a handstand, for example—can teach you that you can do another—like a back handspring.

And it's not as if going to Fisk is risky in and of itself. Fisk counts its origins as a school dedicated to teaching formerly enslaved people to read just following the American Civil War. Its first building was a former Union army barracks. Now, it's known as a member of the Black Ivy League and for having educated famous figures from the civil rights movement, including John Lewis.

Going to an HBCU for gymnastics, for Price, means becoming a part of this history while also making history. "Morgan likes to be a first," said Marsha Price. "She wants to create legends."

Further making Fisk a natural choice are Morgan's personal connections. Price said she learned about HBCUs in high school and was inspired by her maternal grandparents and family friends who attended them.

That Fisk, in Nashville, was the school that launched a gymnastics program at just the right time was made more perfect for Price because it is just 30 miles from where her father made a name for himself. His legacy looms in Lebanon. August 15 is Chris Price Day in Wilson County. The family established a nonprofit, awarding scholarships in Chris' name each year to athletes.

Honoring her father's legacy is a big motivator for Price—being the best she can be in gymnastics, she said, is what he would have wanted.

Morgan Price sporting a collection of gymnastics medals.
Morgan Price sporting a collection of gymnastics medals. Photo credit: Morgan Price.

As Price sees it, at Fisk, she gets to do so while continuing the legacy of her ancestors, in a space that they created for her. "At HBCUs, African American people can come together to celebrate our culture and our success," she said.

"I know if I went to a [primarily white institution], that I wouldn't feel as comfortable," she said. "It makes me feel comfortable being around other people who look like me and share the same background as me."

One semester in, the place feels familiar, in large part because of the people that surround her. She speaks about the team as an extension of her family, saying "it's like more sisters that I never had." And she relishes how Black women "connect more" on the team and beyond. When they walked into the arena for their very first meet, the Gymdogs were greeted by a bunch of young Black girls cheering for them. "It just makes us want to do better for them," she said.

Taking a leap of faith is something that Price is intimately familiar with. But in some ways, this isn't a leap at all. Instead, it's more like coming home.