D-D Breaux has announced her retirement as coach of LSU after a coaching career that spans a staggering 43 seasons. It can’t be overstated just how significant the career of D-D Breaux was. As a gymnast, Breaux was a veteran of elite level gymnastics in the late 1960s. It was not a lack of athletic talent but an injury that caused her to miss the 1972 Olympic Trials. It is astonishing to think that Breaux’s gymnastics career started in the pre-Korbut era, and ended at a time when the social media trend of choice amongst her pupils was TikTok.
It is not just the longevity that makes Breaux great, but the circumstances in which her coaching career started. Breaux is amongst the first generation of college coaches in women’s gymnastics. Alongside her contemporaries such as Greg Marsden, Sarah Patterson, and Suzanne Yoculan, they didn’t just make NCAA women’s gymnastics what it is today, they created it from scratch.
This was a generation of coaches who had to call up reporters just to inform them that their team existed. The coaches who were responsible for all parameters of the program including setting up the bleachers and folding chairs themselves for the fans to sit in. Unlike LIU in 2020, the upstart programs of the 1970s didn’t enter a sport that already had considerable coverage and instant credibility. They had to create that for themselves. In an era without social media or an existing power program to model themselves after, it wasn’t easy building an upstart sport into a juggernaut.
And yet that’s exactly what happened. Programs that once deemed a few hundred fans in the stands as a considerable success eventually found themselves filling basketball arenas on a regular basis. National coverage on ESPN became common place. A sport that was once defined by its success at the Olympic level has witnessed the NCAA side of its fanbase became equally as large. Perhaps the best example of all of this is Katelyn Ohashi, the NCAA gymnast who is now as much of a household name as dominant Olympians such as Aliya Mustafina and Laurie Hernandez.
The legacy of D-D Breaux and her contemporaries is not only what they built, but also what they kept. While it is true that women’s college gymnastics has never been more popular, its rise came in an era where the sport was also being decimated by program cuts. It wasn’t enough for the first-generation of coaches to build programs out of thin air, they had to convince athletic directors not to kill what they had created. This was the hidden work of coaches such as D-D Breaux and even Miss Val who only narrowly avoided UCLA losing its women’s program in the early 1990s.
The coaching career of D-D Breaux is comparable to the gymnastics career of Oksana Chusovitina. It is what both women represent that made their continue presence in the sport so magical. The Soviet program was dominant from the start, but its early generations of “superstar” gymnasts were by no means superstars. Rather, they went on to become rather obscure figures compared to athletes participating in the more established Olympic sports, including men’s gymnastics. This in spite of 1950s Soviet female gymnasts making a mockery of the Olympic record book with their insanely high medal counts.
But when the Soviet program came to an end four decades later, women’s gymnastics had become one of the premiere Olympic sports. By the 1990s it had ceased to become unusual for fans to have memorized the names of every gymnast competing for the top teams. The irony here is that on the NCAA side, women’s gymnastics was built by coaches such as D-D Breaux, but on the Olympic side it was built by the athletes themselves such as Olga Korbut.
As an ex-Soviet gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina isn’t just a reminder of what is statistically the most successful dynasty across all Olympic sports and made countless contributions to making gymnastics what it is today. But a reminder of someone that is now the last of her kind. The legacy of Eastern Bloc gymnastics will always be remembered, but when it comes to Oksana Chusovitina, we don’t remember that legacy, we get to witness it first hand as she continues to compete.
When Oksana Chusovitina and D-D Breaux walk into a competition hall, they serve as a reminder that virtually everything has changed in the last 40 years, but one small piece of it still remains. There is a monumental difference between a legacy that we remember from watching old film, versus witnessing first hand as veterans from a different time still impact the scores. For a little while longer, college gymnastics was fortunate enough to have been able to experience this.
There was nothing easy about being a coach in a women’s NCAA sport in the 1970s. At a time when sports administrators saw Title IX as a threat, they looked to undercut the rise of women’s athletics in any way possible. Often times resorting to the most hurtful statements as they argued what female athletes couldn’t do and that the programs their coaches were trying to build would never materialize into something great. Other times it want beyond words but a direct lack of support from their superiors.
We owe a debt of gratitude to D-D Breaux and the coaches of her generation. And for 43 years, Breaux proved that the presence of the 1970s coaching generation was still alive and well inside the competition halls of the SEC. And with Breaux’s departure comes with it the symbolic conclusion to a generation of coaches who made it possible for a college gymnast to chalk up in front of thousands of fans.