Opening a gymnastics season on the road is one thing.
Entering a hostile environment while still trying to shake off an off-season’s worth of rust, however, presents its own unique set of challenges. Competing with the precision needed to emerge victorious adds an additional kink to that chain.
Manage that, and you’re in the clear, at least until you get to perform in front of your home crowd.
UF’s gymnastics team, completing the first item on that checklist, is set to waltz into the confines of the O’Connell Center with a win under its belt. But winning a meet at Kitty Magee Arena in Denton, Texas — a stadium capable of housing 1,800 fans — pales in comparison to the madhouse they’re about to enter.
The O’Dome, the University of Florida’s multi-purpose indoor sporting facility, was constructed in 1980 and has played host to nine NCAA championship-winning teams across three sports.
The longevity and tradition of the Florida Gators’ athletic program, though, manifests itself in its fans, who flock to the stadium to root for their favorite teams.
Across the 2014 and 2015 gymnastics campaigns, Florida fans turned out in record numbers.
During the former year, the team netted an average of 7,366 fans per event, shattering the university record for average gymnastics attendance by more than 900 attendees. In 2015, the Gators finished the season ranked sixth in national average attendance, with 5,850 supporters showing up to each of their five home meets.
Sixth nationally is undoubtedly impressive. However, if you consider that the Gators averaged fourth or higher nationwide in that same metric from 2006-14, that distinction fades ever so slightly.
It may be a home crowd, but it’s a crowd nonetheless — one that can set nerves on edge in spite of its good intentions.
The gymnasts, though, are ready, and even keyed in their new head coach on what to expect.
"The athletes can’t express to me what an honor and privilege it is to compete in the O’Dome in front of Gator Nation," Jenny Rowland said. "I’m looking forward to being able to be on that floor next to the team, and help them lead their way, guide them through all of their dreams and everything they would like to achieve this year."
Coming off of a solid — yet admittedly imperfect — team showing at Texas Woman’s University, Rowland has the utmost confidence in her team’s ability to perform in front of the throng of people likely to greet them when they take the mat against No. 7 UCLA this Friday.
"I think the first meet out, the girls started on bars—it’s been a little while since they’ve competed—so their nerves were a little higher than normal," Rowland said. "But I think being back in the O’Dome, the girls are going to be feeling welcomed and ready to compete in front of their friends, family and the Gator Nation.
"They’re just ready to show off what they’ve been working on."
Follow Alejandro López on Twitter @ajlb95