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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

No. 3 UF will rely on senior Murry to win SEC Championship

If there has been one consistent thing about the Gators lineup this season, it is Tiffany Murry.

Coach Rhonda Faehn has toyed with the team's order in search of the strongest group, to replace a struggling gymnast or give an athlete some much-needed rest to prepare No. 3 UF (8-2, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) to defend its 2007 SEC Championship on Saturday.

Murry was the exception. The senior - who competes in the floor exercise and vault events - has been pulled from just one floor event all season, a move made to give her a rest and younger athletes more experience.

Last year, it would have been hard to imagine Murry as such a steady competitor.

She was unable to compete most of the 2007 season because she was still recovering from three surgeries - on her shoulder, hip and knee - that she underwent the previous summer. She was expected to return in time for the postseason push but wasn't healthy until the end of the season in March.

"The whole time it was, 'By February you will be back in the lineup and everything,' but my hip took a lot longer to rehab than anyone expected," Murry said.

When she did return, Murry played a small role in the team's third-place finish at nationals, as she only performed in two meets toward the end of the season.

In the two competitions, against Boise State and North Carolina State, she made her presence known. Murry finished second in the uneven bars and first in the floor exercise against N.C. State, and she grabbed a second-place result on the floor at Boise State.

Since then, Murry has had to stop performing the bars event due to her still-fragile shoulder.

While she has excelled this season competing solely on the floor and vault, there are times she wishes she could still try to tackle the challenge bars presents.

"It's tough," she said. "It's been four months, and every day I look over at the girls on the bars, and I'm like, 'If I could just do a routine again and show I can do it.' It's been really hard giving that up."

Giving up any part of the sport is difficult for Murry, who began gymnastics at the age of 3 when her mom, Ivonne Nelson, enrolled her in tumbling class at the local YMCA to keep her from flipping around the house.

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Her mom tried to persuade her to compete in another sport, but every time Murry was forced to choose, she went with her first love.

"I put her in every sport you can think of to divert her from gymnastics," Nelson said. "She would go to the sport, but when there came a time when there was a clash of schedules, she would always choose gymnastics.

"Then when she was about 9 or 10, I said, 'Heck with it, I'm not going to fight you any more. If that's what you want, that's what you do as long as you keep your grades up.'"

Naturally, the girl who has pushed herself most of her life to become a great gymnast wasn't going to end her career because of a few injuries.

The road back to the All-America form she displayed during her sophomore season was a long one, and she relied on a strong support system throughout. It helped that she competed with five other girls on the team for years even before arriving at UF - Murry, Courtney Gladys, Ashley Reed, Melanie Sinclair, Amanda Castillo and Ashley Kerr all trained at Orlando Metro Gymnastics.

Murry said Kerr and Gladys often helped her relax and take her mind off of gymnastics when she was having a tough day.

Gladys, who had injuries that caused her to quit for a few years and competes in the same events as Murry, was able to relate with what her friend was doing and gave her words of reassurance.

"I would always remind her how important she was to the team and how far she has come, and that helped her keep going to having such a phenomenal senior year," Gladys said.

Having the support from her teammates wasn't the only thing spurring her on, though.

In her two events, Murry has made a huge impact that could push the Gators to the next level and bring home the national championship that has been just out of the program's reach the last few years.

On the floor, she is the leader of the nation's second-highest-scoring floor team in every meet, minus the one competition she had off.

Although her performances on the floor have helped get the team off to the right start, it's her seven top-three finishes in 10 competitions on the vault that have quieted her naysayers.

"There were a lot of people I heard say, 'You'll never be good on floor and vault again after you had hip surgery,' and other things, so it's been nice proving them wrong," Murry said.

Even with the strong season she has had, Murry knows it is far from over.

The Gators will head to Duluth, Ga., looking to repeat as SEC champs against six other schools ranked in the top 20, including the two teams UF lost to earlier this season, No. 1 Georgia and No. 6 Alabama.

The chance to help the Gators win back-to-back SEC titles and head to nationals on April 24-26 has given the senior an extra bit of motivation in the gym.

"This is my last shot for myself, for my team to win a championship," Murry said. "Every day, every practice, I'm like, 'This is my last practice,' and it has renewed my passion and made it easier to push through the rough days."

The repeat attempt might be easier, as the Bulldogs will be missing two-time defending all-around champion Courtney Kupets, who is out for the season after rupturing her Achilles tendon on March 1 against Arkansas, but Faehn doesn't expect that to be an issue, since UGA lost two of its top athletes right before its national championship win last year.

Now that Murry will be able to contribute to the Gators' championship runs, her mom is certain that her "shy, kind-hearted" daughter will do anything to make up for missing her chance to help last season.

"It is a big thing for her," Nelson said. "She wants to win so badly, and I know she will do everything it takes to pull something out to help the team get there. I hope they win, because if they don't, I know she will be very disappointed."

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