The beam: it’s like walking on a string

We’ve all done it. Every one of us has screamed at the top of our lungs and hurled obscenities at the TV while sitting on our butts in a cushy recliner. We’ve sat in crowded stadiums and thrown our hands in the air in disgust as a hitter walks back to the dugout after looking at strike three or because a receiver dropped a pass. What makes it worse is when our favorite athletes make the same mistakes over and over again. We sit on our high horse and we criticize.

Perhaps we are right to complain about the lazy mistakes of athletes, because many of us have played that particular sport and are familiar with the fundamentals. I for one know that if a football hits your hands, you catch it. And, that you shorten up your swing with two strikes at the plate and never go down looking.

Recently, I unleashed my contempt and critique on the Florida gymnastics team. The Lady Gators have fallen off the balance beam in every one of their four meets this season, causing them to lose on the road and nearly costing them two more losses at home.

What I couldn’t understand was how so many talented, successful gymnasts could perform so well on all the other apparatuses yet lose their balance on what seemed like such a simple task.

Well, after hearing me spout off against the Lady Gators, Gator Country Managing Editor Franz Beard challenged me to man up and walk the line on the beam. After doing so, I can honestly say I will never doubt another athlete who comes up short in the clutch. At least not a gymnast.

It was a humbling experience to say the least. In my athletic past I have tackled guys like Reggie Nelson and Xavier “Pee Wee” Carter of Melbourne Palm Bay. On multiple occasions I’ve hit 90 mile per hour fastballs off of pitchers who are now in the pros. I’ve even climbed to the top of a 13,000-foot peak and then proceeded to shred down the mountain on my snowboard. All of these are points of pride for me and I love bragging about them to friends at parties.

Maybe I need to re-think bragging after my attempts at walking the balance beam.

Just getting on the beam was a challenge in itself. It is only four inches wide and being four feet off the ground, I had to jump up to get up to get on. Once I did establish my footing, it quickly turned into the sobriety test from hell. I think junior gymnast Melanie Sinclair put it best.

“It’s like walking on a string,” Sinclair said. “You know it’s tough when you stand and the sides of your feet are hanging off the side of the beam.”

I couldn’t agree more with Sinclair’s analogy as I felt like every step I took was my last. When you looking down at your feet to make sure they are where they should be, a feeling of disillusionment suddenly takes over and the ground looks miles away.

“It’s definitely slower than any other event,” senior Corey Hartung said. “Like on vault you jump and it’s over or on bars, you’re always swinging and upside down so you never get distracted by the crowd. Beam takes a lot more focus and precision.”

Precision was definitely lacking in my routine, as I routinely came crashing down. It must’ve been particularly comical for those watching as I attempted to do a handstand and then dismount. Let’s just say it was more dismount than handstand. I can’t imagine how hard it is for the gymnasts, who perform flips and jumps on the beam, most of which require never looking down to see where your feet are.

So it is no surprise as to why the Gators are struggling so mightily on this one apparatus. Why they had four falls two weeks ago at Arkansas to cost them a win. The mystery for me is how anyone could execute a flawless routine on that monstrosity.

“We’ve got it all down physically,” Hartung said. “We are physically capable of performing any skill, we just need to prepare ourselves mentally.

Florida coach Rhonda Faehn said the key to turning it around on the beam was putting more pressure on her athletes to perform in practice. To do that, she has instituted “pressure sets.” Basically, the gymnasts can’t leave practice until they stick five consecutive routines on beam. If they fail at any point during those routines, they have to start all over at routine number one and go until they get five.

One thing is for certain, the Gators (3-1, 2-1 SEC) will need to regain their balance if they are to have any shot at winning an SEC or national title.

As Hartung told me, the balance beam either makes you or breaks you, no matter the level of competition. That will have to be the case for the Gators as they look forward to the rest of the season. Five of their six remaining opponents are ranked nationally, including powerhouses like Alabama (9), Utah (1) and their biggest rival, Georgia (3).

Just comparing the season averages of Florida and Georgia, it is clear the difference lies on the beam. The Gators are averaging 48.4 on the beam rotation while Georgia is one of the tops nationally at 49.14. The difference may seem miniscule, but take into account the total team averages of the two, 196.05(Florida) and 196.65(Georgia), and those .7 of a point are crucial.

The Gators will have yet another test Friday as they head to Baton Rouge to take on eleventh ranked LSU. The Gators will have to decide if they are mentally tough enough to bounce back or if this is a problem that they can’t be cured of. Either way, I’m just glad it’s not me who has to get on the beam and make that decision.