All-American gymnast Alex McMurtry celebrated after her team lost a competitive match to LSU on the evening of Jan. 12. Or, at the very least, she didn’t care at all about the loss.
Neither did her teammates Alicia Boren, Rachel Slocum and Kennedy Baker, who joined her on the podium at the team’s post-match press conference in the bowels of the O’Connell Center. The quartet laughed, joked and smiled until coach Jenny Rowland arrived.
“Literally nothing matters,” one of the athletes sang. “It’s only January 12th.”
Rowland joined in and giggled as well.
If you follow any other sport at UF — especially the revenue-producing sports of men’s basketball and football — you know this attitude is uncommon. It’s one thing for a coach to take positives from a loss. It’s another to joke about the loss as if it didn’t happen.
If Mike White laughed and joked after what will probably end up being an inconsequential loss to Loyola-Chicago on Dec. 6, half the fan base would’ve been on the verge of aneurysms.
That wasn’t the case following the gymnastics team’s loss, and that’s part of what makes it the best sport at UF, as well as a model for what a great team looks like. But of course, its spirit isn’t the only thing. A better place to start making the case for the gymnastics team as a model for teams everywhere is the traditional barometer for athletic achievement: Competition. Or, better yet, success.
Florida’s gymnastics team flourishes year after year. Despite the loss to LSU, this year’s group is still expected to contend for a national title, having lost little from last year’s talented group while hauling in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.
That’s no surprise considering the team has made the NCAA Super Six 11 out of the last 12 years and won three consecutive titles from 2013-15. That’s beyond competitive — it’s borderline dominant.
But the team doesn’t let that success and the accompanying pressure and prestige get to it. The athletes haven’t lost sight of the power of sports to transcend balance-beam falls and perfect 10s alike. That’s clear from the group’s adoption of Bailey, a young girl with an inoperable brain tumor.
On first glance, that probably sounds predictable. How many stories have you heard about athletes going to visit sick children in the hospital? Don’t get me wrong — it’s a great thing to do. But that’s often where such relationships end.
That isn’t the case with UF’s gymnasts and Bailey.
Team members like Rachel Gowey and Slocum — who Bailey calls “Gumball” — FaceTime Bailey regularly. Team higher-ups allow her to attend practice. And against LSU, UF’s first home meet of the 2018 season, Bailey was introduced alongside the rest of UF’s gymnasts before the competition.
When’s the last time you heard about a football or basketball team doing something like that?
That isn’t to say it doesn’t happen. It is to say it’d be nice to see it happen more because sports have the potential to be more than a final score.
The UF gymnastics team understands that.
Finally, aside from its regular excellence on the mat, the team is also just fun to watch.
I don’t think I have to tell any sports fan attending the University of Florida how miserable it feels to watch a bad basketball or football game. Gymnastics, however, is consistently delightful.
Every routine carries the potential of a fall as well as the refined grace of athletes who are at the pinnacle of their craft.
Those three elements — competition, compassion and fun — combine to make gymnastics the best sport at Florida. They also make it OK to be happy after a loss, whether from confidence in improvement given their history of success, the realization that one match doesn’t matter very much in the grand scheme of life and death, or the fact that competing was enjoyable regardless of the outcome.
That’s an attitude other teams at UF — and teams everywhere — would do well to embrace.
Ethan Bauer is a sports writer. Contact him at [email protected].