MARIE-SOPHIE BOGGASCH KNEW “absolutely nothing” about Alaska — the state or the school — before she arrived in Anchorage for her official recruiting visit in 2012.
She was a talented elite gymnast in Germany, finishing as high as 12th in the national championships in 2011. But she didn’t become aware of NCAA gymnastics until February of what was the equivalent of her senior year of high school. She began the recruiting process soon after — years later than most other potential college athletes. By then, most schools had used up all of their scholarships for the incoming academic year, and the University of Alaska at Anchorage was the only program to offer her a full scholarship spot.
It was 4,662 miles away from home — and a minimum of three flights and about 21 hours of travel — but Boggasch knew it was right for her from the moment she set foot on campus. She loved the coaching staff, the welcoming nature of everyone she encountered, the area’s natural beauty and the school’s aviation department.
Almost twelve years later, she is still there — and is now the head coach.
The school and the team, she said, have given her everything, in and out of the gym. She met her husband there. It’s allowed her to become a pilot with her own plane and foster her love for the outdoors. While she always imagined she would end up somewhere warm and near the beach, it’s where her life is, and she loves everything about it.
But leading one of the NCAA’s most remote college gymnastics team is not without a unique set of challenges. The University of Alaska at Anchorage is over 2,200 miles away from its nearest possible opponent, resulting in long travel days, budget constraints and scheduling headaches. This year, the Seawolves had just two meets at home, both held during its first weekend of the season, which resulted in “Senior Night” being held in January.
It makes for a drastically different experience than virtually every other program in the country, but Boggasch and her team — which includes gymnasts from six countries and eight states — wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s what they know and who they are.
“For us, all of this is just normal. I’ve never seen it any other way,” Boggasch said last week. “This is a very special group and a very special team. I think the drive and determination is unparalleled. Many on the team have had to fight to make sure they, and we, had a home in this sport in the future. And that’s made us such a tight-knit group.
“We try to go above and beyond just the gymnastics aspect and make sure we’re creating good people. And every day we try to have the most fun — and always have the most glitter.”
MONTANA FAIRBAIRN, A junior from Alberta, Canada, couldn’t wait to attend UAA. From the moment Boggasch picked her and her dad up from the airport during her recruiting visit in January of 2020, she knew it felt like home. She too loved the welcoming atmosphere — from those on the team and everyone she encountered — and the expansive mountain views everywhere she turned. Some extended family members were surprised at her decision to go so far away from home, but ultimately everyone was thrilled she had achieved her longtime goal of earning a full scholarship to a Division I program.
The world had changed in the months between her commitment to the school and when she arrived on campus in August of 2020. Due to the travel restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, her parents weren’t allowed to come with her to get her settled. Joined by fellow Canadian freshman teammate Emily Walker, the two teenagers made the multiple-flight trek alone. Within hours of getting to their dorm, both had received a Zoom invitation for a meeting that day.
Fairbairn still can’t believe what happened next.
“Some girls were still on airplanes, and others at the airport waiting to board their flights, and Marie-Sophie came on the call and said, ‘They’re cutting our program,'” Fairbairn said. “My heart shattered. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I just got here.'”
On Aug. 19, 2020, the university announced it would be cutting the women’s gymnastics team, in addition to the men’s hockey team and the women and men’s skiing teams at the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year. As gymnastics and hockey are the only programs at the school that competed at the Division I level — the other sports are all Division II – the announcement said the decision would save the school $2.5 million per year.
But no one was going to go down without a fight. Not Fairbairn or her teammates. Nor the hockey and ski teams. And most certainly not Boggasch. She had been promoted from assistant to the interim head coach just weeks earlier and she was not going to let the program that meant so much to her disappear on her watch.
“I don’t think I ever really had a doubt in my mind that we were going to fight for it,” Boggasch said. “Of course the emotions were high, the stakes were high, and calling the team and telling them was the hardest part. We had a transfer, whose former team had been cut [at Seattle Pacific University], and she was on the jetway for her flight to come here. I can’t imagine what she was feeling.
“But very quickly we came up with plans of actions on how to make ourselves more potentially self-sustainable, and what we could do to prove that we’re worth the investment. I think as gymnasts we have a competitive, fiery energy and we want to win. We looked at this as another challenge we were determined to beat.”
The university initially didn’t offer any pathways to save the programs. But that didn’t stop Boggasch, assistant coach Kendra McPheters, and the gymnasts on the team from speaking out anywhere and everywhere they could, from town halls to state legislators’ offices to Board of Regents meetings. Eventually, after about a month of a public advocacy campaign, which also included a flood of letters and emails from Seawolves supporters, they were told if they could raise $880,000 — about two years of the program’s operating budget — the team could be reinstated.
They got to work.
The 2021 season was canceled due to the pandemic, and the team turned their efforts and energy into full-time fundraising. Boggasch started a spreadsheet of local businesses to which members of the team could reach out. The list grew to around 1,500 and the gymnasts divided and conquered. Fairbairn, who was just 17, had never had to seek out donations from strangers before.
“I think it showed recruits that this is a program really worth fighting for.”
“I don’t even know how many businesses I called,” Fairbairn said. “It felt like every business in Alaska was on that list, I’m not exaggerating. We would ask if they would donate any amount of money or if they could provide an item for a silent auction. I really had to get out of my comfort zone as a little freshman and talk. It was hard but it was so worth it.”
Some businesses were able to make sizable donations, and many others gave what they could — small financial contributions or other offerings. Of all the teams in jeopardy of being cut, Boggasch said gymnastics had the most donors.
In February of 2021, the school announced the team had raised enough to compete for one more year. While the gymnasts were relieved to have at least a final season to compete, they kept pushing. Finally, after almost two full years of non-stop fundraising and advocacy, and with donations coming in from 37 states and six countries, the gymnastics team was officially, and permanently, reinstated in June of 2022. They had raised $880,000. The hockey and ski teams were also reinstated after reaching their respective goals.
Boggasch, who had lost the “interim” title in 2021, could now finally just focus on being a gymnastics coach. While recruiting for a program with an uncertain future might seem like an impossible task, Boggasch found the opposite to be true. Few gymnasts transferred and she had found an unprecedented number of athletes interested in the program.
“You would think it would be hard to convince someone to come when you’re not sure if there will even be a team but because we had such a public fight, and did so much public advocacy, I think it showed recruits that this is a program really worth fighting for,” Boggasch said. “It weirdly got our name out there. I wish the attention had come from something completely positive but it showed just how special this team is and that we were worth saving.”
There were seven freshmen gymnasts for the 2023 season — one of the biggest classes in team history. The roster included members from Hawaii, El Salvador and Australia.
THE COMMUNITY SUPPORT remains invaluable. With donor funds, the team was able to hire Hannah Hartung as a second assistant coach ahead of the 2024 season.
It has also allowed Boggasch to successfully argue to bring more of her gymnasts for road meets. Previously the team had a strict limit of 12 per trip — which often would result in single-event specialists being left behind even if they were capable of high scores — but now there is more flexibility and no set number. The full 20-gymnast roster doesn’t all travel, but it has provided Boggasch a chance to bring “a healthy squad” capable of the highest possible team score.
The budget always remains top of mind, though.
Boggasch, who is in charge of making the team’s competitive schedule and works closely with a travel agent, has tried to convince several programs to make the trip to Anchorage for a weekend. Because of the distance, Alaska schedules two meets per weekend — typically on Friday night and Sunday afternoon — and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) rival UC Davis was the only school to make the journey this season. Another team was scheduled for a weekend in February but canceled shortly before the official schedule release. It was too late to find another opponent, hence “Senior Night” being at the very beginning of the season.
The rest of the season has been spent on the road. Their first trip of 2024 was over 3,000 miles away in January, with a Friday meet at Bridgeport and a Sunday meet at Brown.
That meant leaving campus on Wednesday afternoon — several hours ahead of the team’s initial schedule due to a late flight cancellation that morning — then driving to the airport for the more-than three-hour flight to Seattle. Because they were in Seattle earlier than planned, they then stayed in an airport hotel for about five hours in hopes of getting some sleep. From there it was a five-hour flight to JFK in New York.
Upon arrival, the team rented three vans, driven by the coaches — another cost-costing measure because vans are significantly less expensive than renting a bus that requires a driver — and made the 60-mile drive to Bridgeport, Connecticut. They arrived at their hotel around 8 p.m. on Thursday.
The Seawolves competed on Friday night at Bridgeport, coming in second (191.125) in a quad meet. Before making the drive to Providence, Rhode Island, they took the vans in the opposite direction on a team outing to New York City. Some of the gymnasts had never been before.
“We always try to have these fun excursions and highlights as part of these trips,” Boggasch said. “There’s rarely any unplanned downtime and we usually have a pretty good idea months in advance how we’re going to spend our days.”
Boggasch, who had been to New York once during her freshman year, was determined to see everything — the Empire State Building, Grand Central, the Statue of Liberty (from across the river), the Chrysler Building, the financial district, Madison Square Garden and the High Line. A few of the gymnasts tagged along with her for many of the stops, but everyone was free to do their own thing.
“I saw the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park, but I really just wanted to sit down,” Fairbairn said with a laugh. “It was cold, we were in between competitions and I just wasn’t up for walking around. But it was still fun.”
From there, the team made the 180-mile drive to Brown. On Sunday afternoon, the squad came in second again, this time with a 192.425, in a tri-meet. Monday is usually the only day off during travel weeks, so Boggasch tries to begin the trek home on Sunday. In the past they’ve left directly from the meet “with glitter still in our hair” said Fairbairn. But this time, Boggasch found cheaper flights on Monday morning, so they stayed in Providence for another night before starting the long trip home. The Seawolves arrived back on campus late that night. Boggasch tries to schedule a week off after a travel week, so the team didn’t compete the following weekend.
During other trips the Seawolves remain in one place, as they did during back-to-back meets at Centenary in Shreveport, Louisiana, earlier this month. That journey featured an alligator walking tour during the off-day. (Fairbairn said they didn’t see any alligators.)
Those types of trips allow the gymnasts to catch up on schoolwork, and many members of the team brought their laptops to the hotel lobby as a makeshift study hall on the day in between competitions. Fairbairn, who currently has a 4.0 GPA, said their road-heavy schedule can result in missed classes and presents challenges in keeping up with academics, but said her professors have typically been accommodating.
The final weekend in February had originally been the one when the team was planning to host home meets, so when the visiting team canceled, Boggasch scrambled at the last minute to find opponents who had availability — and also were in areas with tourist attractions. She was successful. The team competed at Illinois State on Friday and at Northern Illinois on Sunday. That left Saturday open to explore Chicago — and the team even scored a reservation at the original location of famous deep-dish pizzeria Giordano’s.
Spending hours and hours crammed into cross-country economy seats on airplanes and in the back of vans might not sound like the ideal conditions ahead of a gymnastics competition. But despite the obvious obstacles, the Seawolves have thrived this season.
Their average score has increased by about 1.5 points from last season and the team’s goal of surpassing the program’s all-time high score (194.2) feels within reach. Fairbairn, who earned a career-high score of her own on balance beam with a 9.85 at Brown, said the mark has been a motivating factor throughout the season.
“Our best so far is a 192.425, but if we can all put our best stuff together, on the same day, we can break the record,” Fairbairn said. “Everyone having their best days on the same day is of course hard but I just feel like this team can achieve that. I’m very realistic and I don’t think I’ve thought this was possible in the past but I know this team can do it. It’s an incredible feeling to know what we’re capable of.”
The Seawolves have two more regular-season meets — a tri-meet at UC Davis on March 8 and a dual meet at Sacramento State on March 10 — and then the MPSF conference championships on March 23, also in Sacramento. Boggasch, who was the 2015 conference runner-up on bars, has high hopes for her team for the rest of the season — but she believes this is just the beginning.
“I would love for everybody to see how much hard work has gone into this team and just give us a couple of years until it really is going to pay off,” Boggasch said. “I think we’ll see that in the scores and the rankings. We’re so grateful for everyone who supported us and we want them to see the transition from us no longer just surviving but excelling. We’ll get there.”