Florida gymnast Marissa King wins NCAA vault championship

CLEVELAND, Ohio — University of Florida sophomore Marissa King claimed the 2011 NCAA vault title Sunday in the NCAA Gymnastics Championships’ Individual Event finals held in the Wolstein Center.

Her win returns the vault title to Florida for the first time since 1998. That season was the last time a Gator stepped to the top of the NCAA Championships’ awards stand, as Betsy Hamm and Susan Hines claimed a share of the balance beam and vault titles, respectively. For Hines, it was her second consecutive NCAA vault title and before Sunday, she was the only Gator to claim the NCAA vault crown.

King was one of three Gators in Sunday’s event finals. Senior Maranda Smith shared second in the floor exercise final at 9.90. Freshman Alaina Johnson advanced to three finals. She tied for fifth on floor (9.8875), tied for sixth for the bars (9.85) and shared ninth for vault (9.7875). King also competed in the floor final, sharing ninth at 9.85.

King entered Sunday’s event final with a distinct advantage over all but four other gymnasts in the 16 competitor field. The format for the NCAA vault final requires the competitors to perform two different vaults. During the course of the regular season, the gymnasts perform only one vault so few have a second vault in their arsenal. A plus for King was she could perform two different 10.0 value vaults.

King was the only competitor Sunday performing Tsukahara vaults, which UF Head Coach Rhonda Faehn believes are the most difficult performed in collegiate competition. King’s first vault — a Tsukahara one and a half — earned a 9.90 and her second – a Tsukahara full — earned a 9.85, giving her the winning average of 9.875. Oklahoma’s Madison Mooring was runner-up at 9.825.

“I still can’t really believe I’m national champion. Going into the vault final, I knew that I had a chance but I didn’t focus on the general outcome. I just went out and did my two vaults just like I do in practice. It was great going into the competition confident with both vaults. I was very pleased with the one and a half vault. I did it exactly as I wanted to and have been doing it through the season. On the full, I had a hop back but luckily the overall outcome was great,” King said. “It was great accomplishment. It will take a while to sink in and I can’t wait to be with my team.”

A wake-up call from another continent also helped boost King’s confidence, who was a 2008 Olympian for Great Britain.

“I haven’t told my family (in England) yet,” King said. “My mom surprised me and woke me with a call this morning to wish me best of luck. It was great to hear her voice. It inspired me because my family wasn’t here in Cleveland this weekend. I’m going to get on the phone as soon as I can to tell her the great news.”

King also advanced to the same two event finals last year as a freshman. Faehn thought that experience helped her today.

“I’m really proud of Marissa because she just works so hard,” Faehn said. “She definitely approached this NCAA differently than last year. It was all so new for her last year, but she was definitely ready for this one. It couldn’t have finished any better for her. I was proud of her for her floor as well. The way she represented Florida out here today really made me proud.”

For Smith, it was the ending she was looking for. Her collegiate career has been quite a journey, as her start as a UCLA Bruin for the 2006 campaign was cut short after two meets with a severe shin injury. Surgery was required and a titanium rod was inserted into her tibia. The pain and the recovery period led to Smith retiring from the sport and she returned home. But deep down, she knew she wasn’t done and started training again at her home gym. She regained her skills to the level that Florida, a place she considered in her original college search, extended her a scholarship offer and she started her Gator career in the spring of 2008. During the summer of 2010, she was granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA so she returned to Florida for her second senior year in 2011.

All those thoughts flashed through her mind prior to her final performance, but she was able to regain her focus before the opening strains of her “Gypsy Queen” floor music started.

“Honestly, before the meet, I was thinking what I went through five years ago with my injury, being at UCLA and then making the decision to leave and maybe be done with gym. I’m kind of amazed at how far I’ve come,” Smith said. “I wasn’t putting any pressure on myself today. I just wanted to enjoy competing one last time for Florida. Emotions started to well up just before I competed. I was talking with Rhonda before I went up on the podium and she was telling me just to go out there and have fun. There were tears in my eyes but I had to stop that and get focused. I wanted to remember every moment of the minute and 30 seconds I was up there for my final routine. It turned out great. I’m so happy that I got to become a Gator and compete for the University of Florida. It’s been a blast.”

Competing in the NCAA floor final completed a goal Smith set for herself at the beginning of her collegiate career, as floor is her favorite event. Faehn thought it was a great routine for Smith to finish with.

“So proud of Maranda – she really couldn’t have finished out her career any better than that floor routine. She just showed so much emotion and passion out there,” Faehn said. “I’m just really happy with how she’s represented Florida not only today, but for her entire career. It was a great performance.”

Johnson was one of three gymnasts in Sunday’s competition who advanced to three event finals, joining Alabama junior Geralen Stack-Eaton (vault, bars, floor) and 2011 NCAA all-around champion Kylee Botterman of Michigan (vault, beam, floor) in a trio of finals. She matched the most appearances in the event finals for Gator, joining Hamm who advanced to the 1998 NCAA bars, beam and floor finals.

Johnson stuck the landing for both vaults – a Yurchenko full and Yurchenko layout – but the 9.8 start value for her second vault brought her average to 9.7875. She had a strong bar performance, but a step on her double layout dismount kept her score from reaching its full potential. Johnson finished with a solid floor performance, earning her top placing of the day at fifth (9.8875).

“Alaina did an exceptional job today,” Faehn said. “For a freshman to be competing in three events – that’s so rare – and she performed so well. She is only going to learn from this and carry this over into next year’s competition. It was an excellent job done by a newcomer.”

Georgia’s Kat Ding claimed the NCAA uneven bars title at 9.9125 and Alabama junior Geralen Stack-Eaton won the floor title at 9.9375. 2008 U.S. Olympian Sam Peszek of UCLA kept the Southeastern Conference from sweeping the event finals with her winning balance beam mark of 9.90.

The NCAA Individual Event Finals signaled the end of the 2011 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. The 2012 NCAA Championships are set for April 20-22 in the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.