It’s No. 1 versus No. 2. Florida versus Georgia. Gators versus Bulldogs.
For the first time in UF gymnastics history, the nation’s top two teams will compete in dual-meet competition at the O’Connell Center, and the Gators will welcome the return of their coach, Rhonda Faehn, who missed the season-opening meet last Friday.
On Jan. 8, Faehn, 36, gave birth to a 7-pound, 5-ounce son, Noah. Less than a week later, she was back at practice preparing for the historic event while shepherding her top-ranked squad through a workout and reminding them of their previous path.
Last season, Florida was ranked No. 1 much of the season only to tumble to No. 3 at the NCAA championships. A valuable lesson was learned. Regular-season success is secondary to postseason championships.
“We have to step back and look at last year,” Faehn said. “We won every meet except for the most important one. We went to Georgia and tied them at their home. So did that help us prepare for SECs? Absolutely. Did that help us prepare for us for nationals? Not so much. Our goal, especially for this year, is to be prepared for nationals. We want to win against Georgia, but at the same time, we’re focused on putting our best routines forward and making corrections from the meet this past weekend. But we will obviously put up our full lineup this weekend.”
The Gators performed with few flaws last Friday against Illinois-Chicago, totaling a 197.125, the best-ever season-opening score in school history. Faehn monitored her athletes’ performance from afar, texting the wife of UF assistant Adrian Burde for event-by-event results.
“It was so hard, because we were still in the hospital,” Faehn said. “We didn’t have access to a computer, so I couldn’t watch it online. I wanted to know what each gymnast was doing: Were they wobbling? How were their warm-ups? (Darcie Burde) was giving me constant feedback. That was very, very helpful.”
Parenthood, Faehn said, has not completely sunk in. For most of her 36 years, she has been an athlete, a coach and a wife. Now she’s a mother. Her perspective will change, but how?
“Can I get back to you on that in a while?” Faehn said. “After five days, it’s a matter of changing diapers and enjoying the moment right now. But it really does make me, when I step back … Just yesterday I told (UF assistant) Robert (Ladanyi) that now I see. Everyone always says after you have a child, nothing else really matters. I could never understand that. Now, looking down at Noah, I don’t care, I would do whatever it takes just to protect him and make him happy. That’s a different feeling.”
Beating the three-time defending national champions will yield even more joy. Even to the novice fan, Georgia is known as one of the premier programs in college gymnastics. The Gymdogs have won eight national titles and 15 SEC championships.
This year’s squad, which split against Utah and Stanford, is led by Olympians Courtney McCool and Courtney Kupets. Kupets won a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics in the uneven bars.
Florida is led by Melanie Sinclair, who recently was named SEC gymnast of the week after matching her collegiate best of 39.525 against Illinois-Chicago for the second all-around title of her Gator career.
“Historically, there have been a number of strong programs around the country, not only Georgia, but Utah and UCLA and other teams, Alabama, the four schools that have won a national championship,” Faehn said. “Those are the key teams. If you have a chance to see them, if you can only see one or two competitions a year, those are the ones to see. For us to have Georgia come in here, every other year, for us to have Utah come in here every other year, I think it’s an advantage toward the end of year to see those top teams.
“Georgia, they’re very strong, they always have been. Historically, it ties into a combination of things. They’ve always had strong athletes, including Olympians, which is wonderful for our athletes to go up against.”
Friday’s match, which starts at 7, will be aired by ESPN2 on Jan. 28. General admission is $4 for adults.