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Sister vs. Sister: Baumanns make UF-UGA rivalry personal

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Alyssa Baumann

Sophomore gymnast Alyssa Baumann will go toe-to-toe with her sister, UGA freshman Rachel Baumann, tonight when the Gators host the Bulldogs in the O’Connell Center at 6:45.

 

“Have a great day!”

It was an ordinary text that Georgia gymnast Rachel Baumann sends her sister every other day. The response she received was anything but ordinary.

“Sorry, can’t talk to you,” her sister, Florida gymnast Alyssa Baumann, wrote. “It’s rivalry week.”

The two engaged in playful banter from there, with Rachel sending her memes, such as one of Kevin Hart saying, “It’s about to go down,” and advising her to be ready for the upcoming matchup.

Alyssa and Rachel have been competing in gymnastics since they were toddlers, but they’ve never competed against each other... until tonight.

The two may be three years apart, but their shared love of gymnastics will pit them against each other when the Gators and Bulldogs face off in the O’Connell Center at 6:45.

“I think they’re nervous,” their mother, Jarol Baumann, said. “They want to do their best with their sister there watching, with their sister’s team there watching.”

 

***

 

Alyssa tossed her racket across the tennis court in anger.

On this particular day, she wasn’t applying herself like she typically did.

Alyssa appeared to make zero effort to hit the ball during drills. Her instructor attempted to give her some words of encouragement, but they were in vain.

After tossing her racket, she loudly declared that she hated tennis. Jarol was horrified at the sudden outburst, and when she asked her daughter why she had done it, Alyssa explained that she didn’t want to tire herself out for gymnastics practice.

“I was like, ‘we’re done,’” Jarol said. “‘We’re quitting everything, and we’re just gonna do gymnastics.’”

Alyssa and her sister trained at the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy, or WOGA, in their hometown of Plano, Texas. The two were involved in other sports as well, and Alyssa played tennis like her mother, who played in high school.

Jarol enrolled Baumann in private tennis lessons because she believed that, unlike gymnastics, Alyssa could play tennis her whole life.

Rachel got involved in sports by the time she was 18 months old. The WOGA created a “Mommy & Me” class specifically so Rachel could participate in gymnastics like her sister.

She was a gifted soccer player and played on a male team. She typically scored multiple goals per game.

It wasn’t her future, though. She wanted to be like her sister, and when Alyssa committed to gymnastics full time, Rachel followed suit.

“I don’t think our parents knew what they were getting into at all when both of us went into gymnastics,” Alyssa said. “I don’t think they knew how far we would make it.”

 

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The Baumann sisters quickly realized gymnastics was their future.

Alyssa served on the US Junior National Team in 2013 and on the Senior National Team from 2014-16. In 2014, she took home a gold medal in Nanning, China, at the World Championships for her performance on the balance beam.

“When the US team wins by a wide margin at China, and that’s where you are, it’s an incredible feeling,” their father Greg said. “It’s so rewarding for them, and for us.”

Rachel, meanwhile, qualified for the Elite Program in 2014 and 2015. Despite being in different years, Alyssa enjoyed competing with Rachel at the elite level.

“Being able to compete as such a high level with your sister, not many people can say that,” Alyssa said. “That was a really special moment.”

Those special moments were fleeting, however.

Injuries have plagued both Baumann sisters during their careers.

Alyssa was invited to the Olympic trials for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but after tearing multiple ligaments in her elbow while training, she was forced to withdraw.

Rachel qualified for elite in 2014, but an elbow fracture prevented her from competing in championships that year. She qualified for elite once again in 2015, but a serious back injury cut her career at that level short.

Watching her sister become a world champion at the elite level after her injury wasn’t easy for Rachel.

“It was really tough on me because I had big dreams,” she said. “It was hard to hear, but with the help of my coaches and, of course, my sister and family, I was able to look at it as a positive.”

Rachel eventually moved down to Level 10 gymnastics, which includes less training and emphasis on domestic competition, and began to focus on an NCAA career.

She just recently added another element to her floor routine that the injury restricted her from doing.

“My sister really inspires me. She’s been through more injuries than people know, and she comes back from it stronger than ever,” Alyssa said. “She’s one of the strongest people I know.”

 

***

 

Alyssa was a freshman in high school when the recruiting process began. She wanted to stay in the south due to the weather, and she wanted to be a part of the SEC.

She took a visit to Florida first, and when UF gave her an offer while she was in Gainesville, she almost immediately took it.

“I loved it,” Alyssa said. “I actually wanted to commit right there.”

Her mother told her to wait.

She wanted her to visit at least one more school to compare, so they went to Athens, Georgia,  to visit what ended up being the school that Rachel chose.

Alyssa liked Georgia as well, but she knew in her heart where she wanted to go.

“I loved the campus. I loved the people. I really looked up to that team,” she said of Florida. “It was something I really wanted to be a part of.”

Rachel, meanwhile, graduated high school a year early due to concerns related to her back injury. She started her own recruiting process.

Coach Jenny Rowland recruited her to come to UF, a school that boasts a top-two recruiting class in nine of the last 10 seasons and three consecutive national championships from 2013-15. There were plenty of reasons for Rachel to become a Gator, and Alyssa insisted she join her.

She didn’t.

Georgia heavily recruited Rachel, and she also had friends from WOGA who were a part of the Bulldogs’ program when she visited. There was another reason, however, that Rachel decided to commit to Florida’s rival.

“I feel like I’ve been in her shadow a lot, and so I wanted to make a name for myself at Georgia,” Rachel said. “Kinda, I don’t know, show that I could do it on my own.”

“At Georgia, she could be Rachel,” Alyssa said. “Not just Alyssa’s sister. She was trying to create her own path, and she felt like Georgia could do that for her.”

A year after Alyssa earned two All-American commendations and a place on both the All-SEC and SEC All-Freshman teams, her sister joined her at the collegiate level.

They were on two different teams, though, and for the first time in their lives, they were set to collide.

 

***

 

They two sisters have kept tabs on each other — they congratulated each other over text when they won an SEC honor in the same week — but tonight is the first time in a while they’ve been on the same mat.

“I’m excited,” Alyssa said. “All my family is going to be in one place, so that’s very fun.”

Traditionally, Greg attends every UF meet and Jarol goes to every Georgia meet, but they, along with grandparents, uncles and other relatives of the Baumann family, will be together to watch their daughters compete.

The family will wear split sweaters with both UF and UGA colors for the SEC Tournament, but Alyssa isn’t having any of that for tonight’s meet.

“I told them they all had to sit in the Florida section because we’re at home,” Alyssa said.

Their family will wear all Georgia gear and sit in the Georgia section when the team travels to Athens next year.

Rachel and Alyssa have been excited to face off all week, but the meeting has led to some nerves in the days leading up to tonight.

“You never want your sister to outdo you or anything,” Alyssa said. “She always wanted to be as good as I was, so it just really kind of pushed us both.”

Follow River Wells on Twitter @riverhwells and contact him at [email protected]

River Wells is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida women’s tennis team. He has previously covered UF swimming and diving. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.