“Meeting the moment:” A look at gymnastics’ season opener

Abby McCreary, Assistant Sports Editor

Ashley Johnston has lived many lives in the gymnastics world; she competed as an elite gymnast, graduated an Alabama alum, coached a club team, choreographed, judged, and served as an associate coach. This year she adds one more title to her long list of accolades: head coach of the Alabama gymnastics program. 

It’s been over a decade since Johnston competed with the Crimson Tide to win back-to-back NCAA championship titles. This Friday, though, the alum-turned-coach will step into Coleman Coliseum for the first competition of the 2023 season, a meet against Michigan State.  

Johnston says her decade of experience in different roles has given her a “unique” perspective as a head coach. 

“I think it’s helped me approach our athletes and competitions in a unique way,” Johnston said. “I draw from all those different experiences to try and make the best decisions I can in every moment.” 

In her debut season as head coach, Johnston’s main focus for Team 49 is just that: the moment.  

Senior Mati Waligora says “meeting the moment” has impacted the team’s preparation for its first meet and the rest of the season.  

“That’s been our theme this year,” Waligora said. “Whether it’s big, whether it’s small, whether it’s in practice, whether it’s in competition, we’re meeting the moment and embracing it wholeheartedly, with our entire being.” 

For the Crimson Tide, staying in the moment means keeping Alabama’s winning legacy in the rearview mirror. While the university itself has its fair share of legends, the gymnastics program only adds to the lore. Six national championships, over 30 top-5 national finishes and an outstanding reputation, though, all disappear in the moment.  

Johnston says that this is how the Alabama-level of success becomes possible. 

“Really it came from thinking about the bigger goal, the bigger picture and dialing it back to how do we actually create that, and that comes from investing in the process and staying in the moment,” Johnston said. “One of the phrases that I continue to say is to honor the past and create the future. That’s something that’s really stuck with me, being an alum of this program.” 

Alabama’s first chance at “creating the future” is this Friday’s home meet against Michigan State, the program that the Crimson Tide defeated in last year’s NCAA regional championships to advance to the national championship.  

“Michigan State is a great program,” Johnston said. “They’re coming off of one of their best seasons ever so we’re looking forward to that matchup.” 

Like the Crimson Tide, the Spartans welcome six newcomers to this year’s roster. Both teams have a wide variety of class levels and experience; Johnston says that it adds depth to the Crimson Tide’s lineup.  

“With [balance of class levels] comes a level of seasoned experience along with an eagerness and excitement from the freshman class to get out there,” Johnston said. “I think it’s a great mix: there’s a lot of depth, a lot of talent, a lot of competition on this team.” 

The preseason rankings place Alabama at No. 7 and Michigan State just behind at No. 12. While the Crimson Tide returns several veteran players that contribute to such a ranking, several veteran Spartans will also keep the competition alive on Friday night. Coming off a powerful rookie season as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, sophomore Skyla Schulte is just one Spartan who will give the Crimson Tide a run for its money.  

Although the competition will be strong, the excitement will be stronger. Sophomore Jordyn Paradise says she’s looking forward to simply returning to Coleman Coliseum for another season of Alabama gymnastics.  

“It’s the excitement,” Paradise said. “It’s a dream come true and it’s just a whirlwind of feelings. Being able to wear the script A and represent Alabama is like no other.”  

The Alabama vs. Michigan State dual meet will begin Friday, Jan. 6, at 6 p.m. CT in Coleman Coliseum and will air on SEC Network. 

Questions or comments? Email Blake Byler (Sports Editor) at [email protected]