Gymnastics trending upward headed into SEC championship


CW/ Hannah Saad

James Ogletree, Staff Writer

It took 10 meets, but Alabama gymnastics finally broke the “197 barrier” at its last two outings of the regular season – and not a moment too soon.

With the SEC championship meet looming on Saturday, the Crimson Tide, ranked 11th nationally, is trending upward more than it has all season.

Its visit to top-ranked Oklahoma last week was the first meet in over a year in which the team scored 49.275 or higher on all four events. The team’s total score of 197.250 was also its highest since March 2018.

“It felt like we had finally hit what we had been working for all season,” sophomore Lexi Graber said. “It was a little later than we expected, but it was such a good feeling to see our hard work pay off and get over that mountain.”

Several gymnasts say the environment at the SEC championship is the most frenetic they experience all season. With rowdy fans from all eight SEC gymnastics teams in attendance to cheer on their squads, concentrating on their routines isn’t easy.

As much as the team’s veterans try to explain it to newcomers, and as much noise and commotion as the coaches create in practice to simulate it, there’s no substitute for the hysteria of SECs.

“It’s definitely an element of surprise,” Graber said. “I don’t really think there is one way to prepare for it. We do our best to prepare, but it definitely is a different experience once you get in there,” said senior Ariana Guerra, who lists SECs as her favorite meet of each year. “It’s really hard to describe it to someone who hasn’t been there yet. I think once [freshmen] go through it they’re like, ‘Wow, yeah, I see what you’re saying now.’”

Guerra keeps her composure in two ways. She hears her teammates screaming for her and supporting her every day in practice, so her ear is automatically more tuned to them than to the crowd’s shouts of “Geaux Tigers!,” “War Eagle!” or “Go Gators!”

She also said since every gymnast competes in the same space, they are all performing for the entire crowd, not just their own fans. That helps the gymnasts hear the starkly partisan fans as also cheering for them.

That being said, perhaps Alabama wouldn’t mind if it heard plenty of opposing fans. Five of its six highest scores of the season have come away from Coleman Coliseum, while four of its lowest five were at home.

Alabama will compete in the afternoon session of SECs, which is reserved for the fifth through eighth seeds in the conference, an unfamiliar spot for the Crimson Tide to be in. The top four seeds – LSU, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky – will compete in the evening session.

Guerra said it was “a lot to process” to not be in the top half of the conference, but the team is intent on proving that it can’t be counted out.

“We’ve been given a huge opportunity,” head coach Dana Duckworth said. “It allows us to set the bar very high [for the top-four seeds to match]. I’m a dreamer and a believer, and I said to one friend that I want to make what people may think is the impossible become the possible. Why can’t you be the SEC champions out of the afternoon session?”

Duckworth added that due to its seeding, Alabama will go through the events in Olympic order – vault, bars, beam, floor. She sees that as an advantage, likely because the team will begin on its second-best event and end on its best event.

Last week marked the first time since the 2017 postseason that Alabama gymnastics has scored 49.3 or above on floor in three straight meets. Its vault and bars scores were both the second-highest of the season, and it made strides on the balance beam with a season-high 49.4.

Even still, a gymnast has fallen off the beam in each of the last three meets. That’s not ideal entering a raucous postseason environment, but Duckworth is encouraged that the mistakes aren’t by the same gymnasts each week.

“Even in our best performances, there were still some mishaps, but they weren’t from the same people,” Duckworth said. “So what that means is we still have the opportunity to have all six on all four events bring their very best. And quite honestly, that is the only goal for Saturday.”