Florida’s season came to a disappointing close Friday night, but one Gator left Cleveland as a national champion.
The UF gymnastics team failed to place in the top three in the semifinals of the NCAA Championships on Friday in Cleveland, Ohio, by a mere 0.075 points, but sophomore Marissa King captured the Gators’ first individual title since 1998 on Sunday.
With a score of 9.8750, King brought back the NCAA vault championship to Gainesville. The native of Cambridge, England, said she trusted herself to go into her routine with the same confidence she displayed in practice.
“I went up there and saw all the parents and the rest of the team in the stands,” King said. “I gave them a smile because I was proud they were there and cheering for me. I just went into it knowing I could do it.”
King was joined by freshman Alaina Johnson and senior Maranda Smith in the floor exercise finals, where Smith finished in a three-way tie for second place with a 9.9 in her final performance as a Gator.
Johnson, meanwhile, became the first Gator to compete in three individual events since 1998, performing on vault, bars and floor. Though she didn’t place in the top three in her events, UF coach Rhonda Faehn said she was pleased with the newcomer’s performance.
After her lengthy journey through what she once thought was a career-ending injury, Smith said it was an emotional moment.
“There were tears in my eyes but I had to stop that and get focused,” Smith said. “I wanted to remember every moment of the minute and 30 seconds I was up there for my final routine.”
Smith said she had always wanted to compete in the floor finals, and to have her dream come true in her final year was amazing.
“I saluted the judges, I looked up at [my parents] and I knew they were emotional,” Smith said. “My mom’s been a wreck all weekend. I knew the same things were going through her head — all that I’ve been through, and now to end on this amazing note was just a blessing.”
Despite the heartfelt ending to Smith’s career as an individual, the final moments of the Gators’ 2011 season were far more bitter than sweet.
UF finished fourth in Friday night’s semifinals with a final score of 196.125, coming in just behind third-place Utah’s 196.2.
Utah joined the top two finishers from the second session, Nebraska and Alabama, in the Super Six. Saturday, the Crimson Tide became national champions.
The blockade that held UF back from the chance to duke it out for the title was all too familiar.
It was no secret that the balance beam was Florida’s weakest event throughout the season.
Following a string of flawed beam routines in the NCAA North Central Regionals on April 2, the team honed in on its biggest splinter in the practices leading up to the weekend’s competition.
The Gators created pressure situations while performing intrasquads on the beam nearly every day prior to Friday, and the gymnasts said their confidence level had increased and their routines had improved as the meet grew closer.
Faehn said the team had at least seven intrasquads since regionals — all without one mistake, without one fall.
But when the fifth-seeded Gators jumped onto the event to open the meet, all of their hard work seemed to vanish almost immediately.
Florida’s first beam performer, junior Elizabeth Mahlich, fell off the beam, stumbling to a disappointing 9.275. Moments later, Johnson wobbled her way to a 9.2.
Florida’s gymnasts posted two of the meet’s four lowest scores in the event.
“I really don’t know what happened,” freshman all-arounder Mackenzie Caquatto said. “We had a good practice [Thursday], and warm-up was great. It is just one of those fluky things, I guess.”
Faehn wondered in retrospect if she made a mistake slating Mahlich as the beam’s opener after her shaky regional performance.
“Even though she hit every intrasquad, she probably still had that in the back of her head and didn’t have the confidence to go up aggressively,” Faehn said. “It made everyone tight when she had a mistake.”
After beam, the Gators had a bye, giving them time to recharge before the remaining three events.
On floor, Johnson and Smith had particularly impressive performances, as each earned an impressive 9.9 and King added a 9.925.
The Gators also had solid vault and bars routines, with each gymnast scoring a 9.725 or better. Though some performances had missed landings, there weren’t any major mistakes.
But, it was too little, too late.
“We had a really big hole to fill and just couldn’t come out of it,” senior Alicia Goodwin said.
What made the run especially stinging was Florida’s impressive year leading up to the competition. The Gators at one point held a No. 1 national ranking and beat Alabama, Utah and Nebraska in their regular season.
“It is extremely disappointing because we know how talented this team is,” Faehn said. “But I told them talent doesn’t win championships — you’ve got to stay on the equipment. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that.”