“I wanted a completely different experience from the environment I was used to. I wanted mountains and snow. I wanted an opportunity to compete all over the country,” Sara Carver-Milne said of her decision to attend UAA. And, as any UAA gymnast can tell you, she found it all.
Before the Alaska Airlines Center opened, the team trained at a local gym on the other end of town, waking up before dawn for long, chilly van rides to practice. “We’d be the first people in the gym, so clearly the heat hadn’t kicked in yet,” Sara laughed. “It was different times back then for sure. You really had to make more of a commitment to get to training every day.”
That commitment carried over to academics as well, as athletes had to factor in practice, class and travel time. A former Dean’s List member and Academic All-American recipient, Sara understands what it takes to maintain a strong GPA while competing in NCAA gymnastics. The life of a UAA gymnast required, it must be said, balance.
Now head gymnastics coach at Brown University, Sara looks to instill that same balance in her Ivy League athletes. In her 15 seasons leading the program, she’s coached future Olympians, set conference records, and reached national championships on multiple occasions. But, like at UAA, she makes sure her athletes focus on their academics as well. It’s why both Brown and UAA rank in the top 10 for team GPAs in the country.
Competing for UAA provided an incredible opportunity for Sara, who grew up in the gymnastics hub of Texas. “I was thrilled about the opportunity,” she said of competing for UAA.
Her time in Anchorage led her to Rhode Island, in a roundabout way. Her freshman year, the team traveled to New Haven, Conn. for a meet at Yale, and that east coast excursion never left her mind. When she graduated with a degree in journalism and public communication, she knew she wanted to move east.
Sara landed a job at an ad agency in Providence, R.I., where she used her degree to build a career in public relations. Though happy with her work, a conversation with a former co-worker—plus a downturn in the economy—prompted her to look into opportunities at Brown.
“I wasn’t looking for a career change at the time and I was happy at the agency… but one day I looked at [Brown’s] website and the first job that popped up on my search was head gymnastics coach. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a sign,’” she laughed. “Coaching and gymnastics had always been a huge part of my life, and my passion, so I inquired.”
Having coached elite gymnasts in Texas, as well as the team at Chugiak High School while in college, Sara had experience on both sides of the sport. At Brown, the long-standing assistant coach was named head coach and hired Sara as his new assistant coach.
“I really wasn’t ready to leave the agency and my PR career, so it was the best of both worlds,” she said of her situation, which called for earlier hours at the agency and evenings in the Brown gym. It was an exceptionally busy year. But, when the new head coach decided to open his own gym after the season, the job reopened and a national search commenced. Sara had proven herself and was hired as the new head coach. She’s been there ever since.
Away meets in Anchorage
The Brown Bears are on a hot streak under Sara’s leadership. They’ve won the Ivy League Championship three of the past four years, qualified for the USA Gymnastics Collegiate National Championships the past four years and qualified to the team finals twice. At last year’s nationals, her team set an all-time scoring record for an Ivy League team and defeated the defending national champions. All these accolades earned Sara Coach of the Year honors from her conference.
As coach, she can set each season’s schedule, and has intentionally crossed paths with the Seawolves over the years (it helps that she sees her former coach, Paul Stoklos, every year at coaching conferences and national recruiting events).
During her tenure at Brown, she’s both hosted UAA in Providence and brought her crew to Anchorage to compete. UAA and Brown last met in 2008 here in Anchorage. “That was a great reunion,” Sara said, adding that many of her former teammates from UAA came to the meet and even threw her team a reception after.
All around balance
As a former athlete, Sara knows what she wants her team to take from their college days competitively, academically and into their careers.
“My philosophy is really to get as much out of their gymnastics career, because this is the end of the road,” said Sara, who previously coached 2008 Olympic silver medalist Alicia Sacramone at Brown. “I don’t want them to leave with any regrets.”
To that note, she intentionally keeps her team roster small so everyone has an opportunity to compete more.
Her athletes also have the opportunity to graduate from an Ivy League school. “We’re very realistic,” she says of balancing academics and athletics. “They don’t ever sacrifice one for the other. We’re very vocal about that with them.”
Her coaching style emphasizes prioritization, responsibility and accountability. “We want them to learn skills they’ll carry on into their careers,” Sara added. “We don’t want them to put all of their effort into just gymnastics … I think our formula has worked well for them. They’ve been very successful.”
It’s been several years since Brown faced UAA, but that may change soon. Diplomatically speaking, it should be the Seawolves’ turn to visit Providence, but Sara hopes to bring her team back to Anchorage first.
For her, the Alaska Airlines Center is a major draw. “I’ve been looking forward to taking my team back there to experience the beauty of Alaska and compete in UAA’s new state-of-the-art facility on campus,” she said.
But, until that rematch materializes, the two teams will continue to see each other on the national team GPA rankings, a testament to the balance Sara and Paul both require from their college gymnasts.
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement