Gymnastics season on the line at Ann Arbor Regional


CW/ Hannah Saad

James Ogletree, Sports Writer

For the first time since calendars advanced another year and a six-ton crystal ball illuminated by 32,000 LEDs descended in Times Square, Alabama gymnastics did not have a meet last week.

The team hasn’t competed since it finished third at the SEC Championship meet on March 23.

“Last week, I had no idea what day it was any day, because the schedule was a little bit different,” junior Shea Mahoney said. “It was kind of nice to just be able to be here and not have to travel and catch up on school [and] catch up on some sleep, but also keeping that intensity in here and getting ready for this week.”

This week means the beginning of the postseason for the 10th-ranked Crimson Tide, which will be one of eight teams competing at the Ann Arbor Regional on Friday.

After 12 consecutive weeks of competition, balancing rest and rust has been a focal point since the team returned from SECs. Head coach Dana Duckworth said this has required a strategic approach to preparing the team for regionals.

It went “back to the basics,” Duckworth said, in its first two practices of last week, then simulated a typical full-length meet on Friday. Since then the theme has been quality over quantity to give the gymnasts’ bodies time to heal.

“Our conditioning has been about maximizing strength on the front end of the week and then downloading to be able to have the best gymnastics at the end of the week,” Duckworth said.

Having competed weekly since January and practiced constantly since the summer, fatigue naturally starts to set in. Mahoney sensed it after SECs, so while practicing their uneven bars routines, she wrote one of her favorite Bible verses on her teammates’ hands.

The verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, reads, “For God has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind.”

“You can’t be fearful of what’s to come this postseason – the format’s different, everything’s different,” Mahoney said. “So I just decided that we need to have a mindset of power and love and self-discipline, so I wrote it on all of our hands on bars, and then we just carried that verse with us.”

This year marks the first installment of the most expansive changes to NCAA gymnastics’ postseason since 1991. The previous format, culminating in a national final commonly known as “Super Six,” is no more.

The Ann Arbor Regional is one of four regionals that will take place Thursday through Saturday. Nine teams compete at each one, but only two teams compete on Thursday in what amounts to a play-in meet. Friday features two meets of four teams apiece, with the top two teams in each advancing to a Saturday “super regional.”

The top two of the four teams at each super regional advance to the national championship meet on April 19 and 20. Alabama has reached the national championship meet every year it has been held except its inaugural year of 1982. That’s 36 straight times, but the streak is in jeopardy this year.

It is the third-ranked team at the Ann Arbor Regional, behind No. 2 UCLA and No. 7 Michigan. Assuming it even advances to the super regional, which is likely, it will probably have to beat one of them on Saturday to keep the streak intact.

The team’s recent performances make that quite possible, as it has set a new season-high score in each of its last three meets.

Duckworth said the new format and the bracket that the NCAA has released for fans does create more excitement about upsets, and she has the Crimson Tide embracing the role of spoiler.

“To me, at the SEC championship, we were the upsetter,” Duckworth said, referencing the fifth-seeded Crimson Tide’s third-place finish. “So guess what? Going into [the super regional], let’s do it again and let’s be the top team getting out of that regional.”

Advancing to the super regional would have the team competing twice in 29 hours after not competing for 13 days.

Going back to back isn’t unprecedented, though. The previous format for nationals had 12 teams competing in a national semifinal, six of which advanced to the finals the following night.

“Dana [Duckworth] always says, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,’” Mahoney said. “It’s just taking it one event, one routine at a time, not thinking about how we have to compete the next day as well.”

It will help that Alabama is slated into the Friday afternoon session rather than the evening. Competing earlier will give the gymnasts more time to recuperate if the team advances to the super regional, but it’s also several hours earlier than they’re used to competing.

Friday’s session against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State begins at 2 p.m. ET (1 p.m. CT), which is six hours earlier than a typical meet. Sophomore Alonza Klopfer, however, said she isn’t worried about the adjustment.

“I don’t find it that difficult, just because you get into a rhythm when you warm up, and then your body kind of feels the same,” Klopfer said. “I never know what time it is in here when we’re training, so your body will work when it’s supposed to work.”

The first of as many of four postseason meets for Alabama gets underway Friday, but Duckworth said the gymnasts can’t afford to look at it that way. Their focus should remain, as the coach says, where their feet are.

“When do we make our mistakes? When we get ahead of ourselves. When we don’t just go moment by moment, second by second,” Duckworth said. “That’s really what our whole philosophy has been leading into SECs, and that’s been even more heightened in the championship season.”