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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Tonight, Florida and LSU will put school colors aside for a more meaningful one.

Both teams will don pink leotards to raise awareness for breast cancer when the No. 4 Gators (6-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) host the No. 14 Tigers (2-6, 2-2 SEC) in the O’Connell Center at 7 p.m. in the sixth annual Link to Pink meet.

The competition, which is part of an NCAA initiative for all gymnastics teams to participate in a “pink” meet each year, is dedicated to fighting the disease and promoting early detection of breast cancer.

At tonight’s meet, survivors will be honored, while the crowd is encouraged to sport pink.

“It’s for a great cause and it’s a really nice competition because of that,” junior Marissa King said. “Wearing pink and competing in pink is just wonderful.”

Since its inception at UF in 2007, Link to Pink has been one of the Gators’ highest-attended home meets each season. Last year against Penn State and North Carolina State, Florida had 8,272 in attendance for the event.

“It’s incredible to see the support of Gainesville and the surrounding communities coming out,” coach Rhonda Faehn said. “It brings two worlds together. I can’t describe the feeling when our athletes come out of the tunnel and we step out and we see everyone wearing pink up to the third level of the O’Dome.”

For a couple of UF gymnasts, breast cancer hits home.

Freshman Kytra Hunter will dedicate her first-ever Link to Pink meet to her grandmother, Helen Esprit, who died in 2005 after she was diagnosed with the illness a year earlier.

Hunter was very close with Esprit, as she still recalls fond memories of visiting her grandmother in Texas as a child. 

“Just to able to go out there and compete, just knowing that I’m competing for a cause and kind of competing for her, too, is great,” Hunter said. “It’s going to be really touching and emotional, but also pink is my favorite color.”

Sophomore Mackenzie Caquatto’s grandmother, Jeanette Johnston, and aunt are both survivors of breast cancer.

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“When we found out they were survivors, it was a great feeling,” Caquatto said. “It gives me that extra spark and motivation when I’m out on the floor and competing.”

Like several of her gymnasts, Faehn has known people who have battled the disease.

“A dear neighbor of mine when I was growing up in Minnesota actually lost her battle to breast cancer,” Faehn said. “Her name is Ruth, and I’ll be honoring her.”

Florida is coming off a tough 197.725-196.900 loss to defending national champion Alabama last Friday, but motivation won’t be hard to find in a special environment like tonight’s plans to be.

“Everyone knows someone who’s gone through or had cancer,” King said. “I’ve known someone’s mother who died from breast cancer. It always makes this type of situation a little more special knowing you’re competing for that cause and recognizing the people who’ve survived cancer.”

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