Special to GC
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In her two seasons on the UF gymnastics team, Bridget Sloan has proven many things, one being that she is nearly unflappable.
Sloan is Florida’s free spirit, the one that keeps everyone else relaxed and in fun mode. But when it’s time to perform, Sloan turns on the fire as one of the elite gymnasts in the country.
So you can probably imagine what was going through her mind when she fell off the beam Friday night here at the NCAA Championship semifinals. In an instant Sloan’s quest to repeat as NCAA all-around champion and beam champion vanished.
It also cast a temporary cloud over the defending national champion Gators as they attempted to finish in the top three Friday to advance to Saturday’s Super Six.
“I know it was a very, very big disappointment for Bridget,” Gators coach Rhonda Faehn said. “She was pretty distraught after that beam routine.”
Former teammate Marissa King, in her first season as a student coach, could see Sloan’s disappointment.
King took Sloan back to the locker room for a brief chat. She tried to console Sloan and remind her that this was a team competition. Individual titles are nice — King won the 2011 NCAA vault title — but a team title means more.
King’s pep talk hit home for Sloan.
“Looking back on it, how many people really remember who won the all-around last year? But everyone remembers that in 2013, the Florida Gators won their first NCAA title,” Sloan said afterward. “It’s one of those things that’s hard to digest, but you learn from it. Tonight was a huge learning curve for me.
“I’m not perfect but there are things that I have to do to make my routines to the best of my ability. Obviously I was a little off tonight, but tomorrow, I’m ready. We are so fired up about tomorrow. We want to make a statement that not only are we the University of Florida, but that we fight.”
The Gators certainly fought Friday, advancing to the Super Six along with Alabama and Nebraska. The trio joins Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU in the Super Six and a shot at the national championship Saturday night.
The Gators answered fast after Sloan’s uncharacteristic fall that resulted in a 9.200 score. Mackenzie Caquatto stepped on beam after Sloan and scored 9.900; Kytra Hunter finished Florida’s rotation with a 9.850 score.
Sloan’s fall would not count in the team score.
“I knew I had to go out there and be cool, calm and collected,” Hunter said. “I’m glad I had a stellar routine. We have each other’s backs.”
Sloan proved that last year in the Super Six when she nailed a 9.950 on beam to help the Gators overcome two falls on the apparatus and claim the program’s first national title.
As Sloan tried to regroup in the chat with King, Faehn talked to Caquatto and Hunter prior to their routines to stabilize Florida’s focus.
“We always feel like our team rises to the occasion when it’s a challenging situation,” Faehn said. “I was really proud of them.”
With Alabama in front entering the final rotation, Sloan did her part on floor with a 9.900 score. Florida and Alabama tied with a team score of 197.650. The Gators earned the tiebreaker to keep their same rotation (vault, bars, beam and floor) on Saturday.
For the first time all season a Florida gymnast didn’t win the all-around title, but that didn’t matter.
Imperfections and all, Florida’s season is alive for another day. The day they wanted to make it to all season — the final day of team competition. This is the third consecutive season the Gators have advance to the Super Six.
Senior Alaina Johnson posted a 39.600 all-around score to place second overall and provide a big boost Friday.
“We don’t have to be perfect,” Johnson said. “We had mistakes that we of course didn’t want, but what was good about it was that we came back strong. That shows what kind of team we have.”
The Gators will return to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena on Saturday with the goal of claiming a second consecutive national title.
If that happens, Sloan likely will play a key role.
She did Friday, too, just not according to script.
“I definitely did not have a good night,” she said. “I learn from every meet. As a team, we really came together. I definitely would have handled it much differently a few years ago.
“That’s what gymnastics has taught me. You’re not going to be perfect. We started in January. It is now April. It is a very long season and you win some and you lose some. Individually, that’s how I look at it. But as a team, this is a team competition. You could tell tonight we wanted it.”