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Sunday, March 03, 2024

Florida gymnastics ready for pressure of defending title, tough schedule

<p>Kytra Hunter performs a floor routine during Florida's win against LSU on Feb. 21 in the O'Connell Center.</p>

Kytra Hunter performs a floor routine during Florida's win against LSU on Feb. 21 in the O'Connell Center.

Being the two-time defending national champions brings pressure.

Being preseason No. 1 brings even more.

Throw in one of the toughest schedules in the country, and it’s safe to say the UF gymnastics team will be feeling the heat this season.

"It’s not going to be easy," junior Bridget Sloan said. "We have a huge target on our back right now and we had a huge target on our back last year, but we made it work."

The way the Gators made it work was by focusing on each moment of the journey individually and growing from each, rather than being daunted by the big picture.

"I think the whole team understands you have to go through steps," Sloan said. "You have to make mistakes in order to learn.

"Well, unfortunately in gymnastics, we do make those mistakes and, again, we learn from them, and that’s what it takes to win a national championship is learning from your mistakes and not letting them happen again."

Coach Rhonda Faehn said the pressure is what often causes the team to make those mistakes, but it is not a bad thing.

She said she looks forward to the difficult schedule ahead — the Gators face three top-five opponents on the road — as an opportunity to make those mistakes now so they won’t come back to bite Florida when it matters most.

"Until they actually encounter it, they won’t learn from it," she said, "so we try to put them in the pressure situations on the road as much as possible in the part of the season, so that when it gets into the (Southeastern Conference), regional and national time they know how to handle that."

Kytra Hunter is one of four seniors on the team who has seen life before the two national championships.

She has tried to share that experience with the freshmen on the team who haven’t had to deal with any adversity yet.

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She said the most important thing she’s learned is that trusting her team is paramount when the road gets tough.

"Being comfortable with my skills, my coaches, my teammates, and being able to speak up is a big thing," Hunter said. "Being a veteran, I’ve been able to show the freshmen that and showing them it doesn’t always have to be pressure on yourself. We’re a team for a reason."

As she begins her final year at UF, Hunter said worrying about what’s at stake is the furthest thing from her mind. Instead, she’s looking to savor every moment she has left while embracing each difficult situation she and her team encounters.

"Of course there’s going to be pressure but we can’t look ahead of that," Hunter said.

"We need to just enjoy ourselves and do what we’re fully capable of."

Follow Graham Hack on Twitter @graham_hack24

Kytra Hunter performs a floor routine during Florida's win against LSU on Feb. 21 in the O'Connell Center.

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