This article was written by John Frierson for Georgiadogs.com. To view the original article, click here.
Corinne Wright Tarver got into gymnastics because of her older sister, who first showed an interest in the sport after being a cheerleader. It was one of the best decisions she ever made.
“I tagged along and it went from there,” Tarver said.
It went from learning gymnastics to excelling in the sport, to becoming Georgia’s first African-American Gymdog and then, in 1989, the first African-American gymnast to win an NCAA all-around national championship.
When Tarver joined the Gymdogs, the fact that she was the program’s first African-American student-athlete wasn’t something she or anyone else really talked about, she said, but it was mentioned in some newspaper articles.
“I knew the significance, I understood the significance, and I loved being the first,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved being a trailblazer. I was like, yes, I’m going to go and do this and this is going to be great.”
And it most certainly was. Tarver ended her great career (1987-90) as a nine-time All-American, and in 2005 she received the ultimate honor that a Georgia student-athlete can receive when she was inducted into the UGA Athletic Association’s Circle of Honor.
Tarver’s gymnastics career had humble beginnings. A native of New York, she didn’t start out training at a dedicated gymnastics facility, she said. No, before each practice at the YWCA, the gymnasts had to help pull out and set up the equipment, and then help put it away at the end.
“It was kind of competitive but it was more recreational,” she said of her early training days.
Eventually, she needed more advanced coaching and training than she could get at the local Y.
“They took me as far as they could,” she said of her early coaches, and then she started going to a proper gym in Connecticut. “That was when I realized that I had a really good chance (at a long career in the sport) because I was not even close to, skill-wise, the girls that I was training with. I had been training two days a week for six hours, and I went from training six hours a week to 20 hours a week.
“I just kept improving and improving, learning skills, and the next thing you know I was winning regionals.”
Going from training six hours a week to 20 hours was quite a leap in commitment. The drive that Tarver showed during her great Georgia career, that helped her win NCAA all-around and floor titles and help the Gymdogs to NCAA team titles in 1987 and ’89, it was there early on when she first ramped up her training.
“I was all-in from the beginning,” she said. “You could have told me 40 hours a week and I would have been all-in. I loved being in the gym.”
As Tarver’s workload increased, so did her scores. She eventually made the U.S. National Team in 1985-86, but it took a while for colleges to take notice.
“I was not being heavily recruited at first,” she said. “I didn’t put myself out there like most kids did. At the time, I had just made the U.S. National Team so I was kind of like, it’s not like colleges don’t know of me. They go to the championships and they know all of the kids at the championships.”
As it turned out, Tarver said, coaches thought she was a year younger than she was. When Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan Leebern found out Tarver was a senior in high school, Georgia quickly got into the mix and brought her down on a recruiting trip.
“It appears that whatever database they had listed me as a junior instead of a senior, which is why nobody was recruiting me,” Tarver said. “Suzanne brought me in for a visit and that was that. I canceled every other visit I had planned and didn’t go anywhere else. I was like, this is it, I’m going to Georgia.”
Leebern and her staff weren’t recruiting Tarver to be a trailblazer. They wanted her to come to Georgia and be a champion.
“It was never mentioned or talked about. I mean, Gymdogs were Gymdogs,” said Leebern, who led Georgia to 10 NCAA titles during her legendary career from 1984-2009.
As a freshman in 1987, Tarver helped Georgia win the program’s first NCAA team title, earning All-American honors in the all-around and floor exercise. The following year, she was an All-American in the vault and floor. Then came her junior year, when she again helped the Gymdogs win the team crown while also winning individual NCAA titles in the all-around, the first African-American, to do so, and floor exercise.
“That was exciting,” she said of being the first African-American to win an all-around title. “And I loved the fact that that was something I could do. That was somewhat of a motivator for me, too, to be the first to do something.”
As a senior in 1990, Tarver wrapped up her career by earning All-America honors in the all-around. Leebern remembers Tarver as a tough, confident Gymdog, but she wasn’t always the easiest gymnast to coach,
“She was a great team player but she was also a stubborn girl,” Leebern said with a laugh. “She knew what she wanted. When she was in the mood to practice, she was like the best I’d ever seen. But when she didn’t want to practice, she just didn’t.
“She was not an easy athlete to coach, but she was a confident athlete and a great competitor. I love that, I love coaching that type of athlete. She was a challenge for me, but the rewards far outweighed the challenges.”
For Tarver, who achieved so much during her Gymdog career, her Georgia days still shine brightly in her memories.
“Amazing — my time at Georgia was absolutely amazing,” she said. “I loved every second of it. We had moments that weren’t so great, like getting hurt my sophomore year, but overall it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.