Seven weeks after officially announcing her retirement, Rachel Baumann is back. But there’s a catch, Rachel is not returning to her role at the University of Georgia, but rather their biggest rival, the University of Florida. In college football the Georgia-Florida rivalry is iconic and is nicknamed “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”
In gymnastics circles, the rivalry is unofficially nicknamed the “Battle of the Baumanns” because it features Alyssa Baumann who formerly competed for Florida and her sister Rachel, who used to compete for Georgia. In gymnastics the Florida-Georgia rivalry is a family rivalry, contested between one of the more famous sibling duos the American Olympic program has produced in recent years.
The Baumann sisters grew up together in the gym. But not just any gym, they cut their teeth at WOGA in the late 2000s and throughout most of the 2010s. At the time WOGA was an absolute monster in the gymnastics club system, and the Baumann sisters grew up inside WOGA when it was at the peak of its power. The club had recently won the All-Around at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. It appeared to be reloading with the likes of Katelyn Ohashi and Madison Kocian. For Rachel and Alyssa, their association with this dynasty at such a critical time ensured they were under a spotlight from an early age.
In high level gymnastics having a sibling competing by your side can be both a blessing and a curse. Sisters are always there to support and empower each other. But often times it creates situations where the two siblings constantly have their careers being compared to each other. Or when one sister achieves success, the burden is on the other sister to replicate it. For Rachel Baumann and Alyssa Baumann, that certainly was the case.
Alyssa was the older of the two siblings. She would also be the member of the Baumann family who achieved the greatest amount of success. Alyssa Baumann would go on to become a gold medalist at the World Championships, but Rachel never received such assignments. Her career at the elite level did not materialize in the way Alyssa’s did.
For Rachel, she had to grow up and excel at the elite level while having the reputation of her sister to live up to. Every time Rachel accomplished a career milestone, it was a milestone that had already been achieved by a member of her own family. But when it came time for Rachel to make her college decision, rather than join her sister at Florida the younger Baumann sister decided she “wanted to make a name for myself and go my own way.”
It was one of the most admirable storylines of NCAA gymnastics in recent memory. Rachel had the courage to say that she wanted something more for herself other than constantly being associated with her older sister. Whether it was Alyssa or the other WOGA superstars she trained with as an elite, Rachel always seemed to be in the shadow of her more famous training partners. And Rachel was going to escape it.
Rachel wanted her own name, her own identity, and she got it at Georgia. Rachel Baumann went on to become one of the leading members of the Georgia team. Rachel emerged as a genuine leader of the Bulldogs and did so while blazing her own trail. At Georgia Rachel had her own name, not a name she shared with her sister. Rachel was a Georgia Bulldog because she wanted to live as an independent, not follow her sister.
What makes the career path of Rachel Baumann so admirable is she had the courage to take control of her own image, but also that after committing to this decision, she succeeded in that goal.
But this is Alyssa’s story as well. There was the natural disappointment of seeing her little sister depart for a different school and the family duo wouldn’t have as much time to interact with each other. There was also the symbolism of the move as Alyssa’s own sister had opted to align with Florida’s biggest program rival and compete directly against her. But like any good sister, Alyssa was always going to be there to support Rachel.
The fascinating aspect of the college portion of their careers is that both Baumann sisters traveled roughly 850 miles from home just to be in each other’s back yards. Having just enough space for each to forge independent identities, but being just close enough for their careers to remain connected. If Rachel had opted to move to California to escape Alyssa’s shadow, this famed sibling duo wouldn’t have been as memorable at the collegiate level. Instead, the two would compete as SEC rivals and meet on numerous occasions in competitions that would receive coverage on ESPN.
But as both sisters came towards the end of their college days, Alyssa had exhausted her NCAA eligibility while Rachel was slated to graduate from Georgia with eligibility remaining. Rather than continuing with Georgia, for the second time in her career Rachel Baumann was going to do what she personally wanted to do. Not what people expected her to do.
With Alyssa no longer an NCAA athlete, Rachel now had the opportunity to compete at Florida without overlapping with her older sister. In news that ended up startling gymnastics fans, a Baumann is back in the Florida lineup. And it isn’t Alyssa. Rachel is ending her career in the exact same way that she started it. Taking her college choice into her own hands and not being afraid to do something bold.
If Rachel finishing her career at Florida is the perfect ending to the Baumann era of gymnastics, it is because it always seemed that Florida was the perfect place for Rachel. Florida allowed Rachel to follow the legacy of her sister, while having Alyssa’s experience with the program as a tool that could give her guidance. There are also the implications of an athlete doing what is best for her career. Florida generally gets more attention amongst gymnastics fans, has been more successful at chasing NCAA titles in recent years, and has more National Team members on its roster.
Both Baumann sisters were best served continuing their careers at Florida. But Florida couldn’t serve the needs of both Rachel and Alyssa at the same time. But with Alyssa removed from the team lineup, now it can. And Rachel didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself. The careers of Rachel Baumann and Alyssa Baumann have always been intertwined. Now they are intertwined a little bit more.
After years of building her own independent identity, Rachel feels the time is right to bring herself closer to Alyssa’s legacy without feeling like it casts a shadow over her.