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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

I don't know. And that's not because I'm just of average intelligence. You don't know either, and there's a good chance you're smarter than I am.

Only 16 people in the world know. They're the athletes and coaches of the UF gymnastics team.

If the Gators advance to the Super Six at the NCAA Championships in one week as the rankings predict them to, nobody outside of the team can evaluate their success.

If they become the fifth team ever to win an NCAA title, great. If they bow out on Day 1 and don't even advance to the Super Six finale, it's up to them to measure their level of disappointment for not winning. But it's also up to them to measure their pride for making it as far as they have with one-third of their team on injured reserve.

When UF opened its season against Oklahoma about three months ago, this wasn't true. The Gators were on course to become the fifth team to ever win a championship, or at the very least be one of the favorites to. That was the obvious goal, and it was a legitimate one. UF had one of its most talented and experienced teams in a long time.

"We had the talent and the amazing routines to win," senior Corey Hartung said. "It was just a matter of making sure each girl believed that."

Amanda Castillo, perhaps the most talented gymnast on the roster, went down for the season with a tear in her left Achilles tendon. That was just the final blow. Before that, the Gators saw Nicole Ellis, Kailey Tissue and Rebekah Zaiser all on the sidelines. They waved goodbye to Alicia Goodwin, too. For the first time in a long, long time, you'd expect there to be more ice, heating pads and crutches in practice than smiles, perfect landings and pointed toes.

So excuse them if they don't make history as NCAA champions. Where would the UF men's basketball team have been four years ago without Joakim Noah?

Not that the gymnasts care about any of this. After those injuries, they had some of their best practices, and a fragmented team on the training table morphed to a cohesive unit in the gym.

"We're doing even better with what we have than we would be doing with everybody healthy," Hartung said. "When you're dealt hard, tough times, you work harder and pull yourself together more as a team. If you focus on the bad things, then bad things are going to come. …I think if any other team was in this situation, they wouldn't have come this far."

Maybe not. But who cares if another team would have? It doesn't matter. That's because we have no reason to tell a group of individuals who have seen a third of their group get hurt that they haven't achieved success.

"We're never going to settle for giving up," junior Melanie Sinclair said. "We're never going to stop pushing. We're never going to be seen as the weak team. That's not us."

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It could have been, though.

"This team mentally is stronger right now than we were the last three years because they've had to deal with so much adversity," UF coach Rhonda Faehn said. "They had to either fight or they would've died and given up. They did not do that."

This time, success really isn't going to be shown in the standings. If you see a member of the gymnastics team in a week and a half on campus, and she's smiling, then the team succeeded. With how these past few weeks have gone, it won't be surprising to see some goofy grins on their faces. In this case, victory can be seen on a face and not in a box score.

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