Florida Gators gymnastics wins first NCAA national championship with stirring comeback

USA TODAY Sports

After a disastrous first rotation, Florida needed a miracle to get up off the mat at the 2013 NCAA Championships' Super Six. They made one happen.

After one rotation at the 2013 NCAA Championships' Super Six round, Florida sat in last, having been forced to count a fall thanks to two falls on the balance beam from Ashanée Dickerson and Kytra Hunter. The Gators' 48.875 score on the apparatus would be the lowest score by any team on any apparatus on the night. And after Jamie Shisler earned a 9.075 as Florida's first floor exercise score, the Gators' margin for error had entirely vanished.

What happened next was nothing short of magical.

Florida scored 9.9s on each of its last five floor routines, and ended up with a massive 49.725 on the apparatus — both the NCAA Championships record on the floor and the best score Florida put up on any apparatus this year. And just like that, the Gators leapt from last to second, with UCLA just ahead of them and Alabama's opening 49.500 on the floor looking a little more mortal.

The comeback continued on the vault, where Florida got four 9.9s — including a 9.950 from Bridget Sloan, who won the NCAA individual title on Friday night, then bettered her all-around score from Friday on Saturday — and got to 148.100 through four rotations. Florida was on bye for the fifth rotation, sitting and waiting for Alabama to catch up, but by the time the Tide had, a lead that would have seemed insurmountable for most teams had shrunk to the smallest margin possible in collegiate gymnastics, a tiny .025. For Florida to win a title, the Gators would need only to put up a score on the uneven bars that bested Alabama's score on its final rotation on the balance beam by .050 points.

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Florida and Alabama had been there before — had been in virtually the same place on the same stage in 2012, in fact. They were just in different roles: Last year, Florida had put together a very good 197.775 score through five rotations, enough to beat UCLA by that same pesky .025 margin. The Crimson Tide lay in wait with just the balance beam left, though, and enough of a chance for a sensational performance to earn the title.

The Tide got that performance: Ashley Preiss, the last Alabama gymnast to hop on the beam, performed a superb routine that earned a 9.950, which pushed Alabama's score to 197.850, a championship-winning score that tied for fourth in Super Six history. Florida had put together the night's most consistent scores, topping 49.400 in all four events, but didn't quite have enough on a night when every team seemed to be on fire.

And so that went down with every other close call for the Gators in the Super Six, an event that Florida hadn't even gotten second in since 1998. Florida barely missed qualifying for it in 2011, but finished fifth in 2010, fourth in 2009 and 2008, third in 2007, and so on: The record the Gators had put together under Rhonda Faehn was one of a top-five program nationally that could not, for whatever reason, win a national title.

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Undoubtedly, that was on more than a few fans' and observers' minds tonight, as the Gators headed to the bars and Alabama to the beam, site of the Tide's last conquest. And it might have stayed there through Florida's first two bars routines, by Bianca Diancose-Giambattisto and Kytra Hunter, as they managed just 9.85s, scores that are fine in a vacuum but slightly disappointing for a team desperate to get every hundreth of a point out of a comeback.

But then Marissa King, Florida's bubbly senior leader, put up a 9.875. Then Sloan, steely all night, put up a 9.9. And then Alabama's Kayla Williams lost her balance twice on the beam, mistakes that gave her a 9.625 and left the Crimson Tide with no margin for error on the cruelest apparatus in a cruel sport.

And then the unthinkable happened: Alabama's Sarah DeMeo, who hadn't fallen on the beam in more than a month, fell. And like that, in a second, the door was wide open for Florida to win the national title.

All the Gators had to do was finish strong on the bars, and Mackenzie Caquatto (9.900) and Alaina Johnson (9.950) did just that. Florida rallied from 48.875 to score a 197.575 by putting up the night's best scores on the floor exercise, vault, and uneven bars, figuratively rising from the grave after having to count a fall, which usually guarantees doom at the final levels of college gymnastics.

And after being in last place, with their backs squarely against the wall, Florida was mathematically guaranteed of a national championship as soon as Johnson's score went up: Neither Alabama nor Oklahoma could catch the Gators even with 10s to finish out their final rotations. (The Sooners would finish at 197.375, pipping the Crimson Tide's 197.350 for second.)

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This is a triumph for so many people in the Florida athletic department that it's impossible to name them all: Rhonda Faehn, of course, coaches and molds her gymnasts into fantastic athletes and people; her assistant coaches, Adrian Burde and Robert Ladanyi, are great in their roles. Jeremy Foley has gone to bat for gymnastics time and again — witness the team's swanky new practice facility in the O'Dome — and wiped away tears in Los Angeles with the team on this night.

Every Florida gymnast — Bridgette Caquatto, Mackenzie Caquatto, Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto, Ashanée Dickerson, Morgan Frazier, Kytra Hunter, Alaina Johnson, Marissa King, Dali Lemezan, Lauren Rose, Jamie Shisler, Bridget Sloan, Rachel Spicer, Randy Stageberg, and Kiersten Wang — had something to do with this accomplishment, and scores of the Gators who came before them had to do with it, too, helping set a foundation that helped Faehn sell her program to recruit after recruit. This may be Florida's most talented team ever — it was certainly the highest-scoring team ever, and probably the only one that could conceivably have performed the resurrection we saw tonight — but even in gymnastics, a sport for the short, those who become great usually have to stand on the shoulders of giants to do so.

And while Florida gymnastics meets have long been a secret joy for diehard fans and families that stayed well below the radar of most Gators, the support that Florida has gotten at home meets has been superb, especially in recent years, and should only grow stronger now that the monkey is fully off Florida's back.

For everyone who has contributed to this championship: You did something phenomenal, something that compelled thousands of people watching an Internet stream to fist-pump in living rooms. And we can never thank you enough for that.

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But if the facts of what Florida did tonight, by earning its first national championship in gymnastics since an AIAW title in 1982, its first NCAA national championship in gymnastics, and its 30th national championship overall, are staggering, then I don't have a proper word for the fashion in which these Gators did it.

That's Florida associate athletic director Mike Hill's two cents, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with something as stirring as starting off a Super Six with by far the worst score of the night and then, unbelievably, rallying to win it all with room to spare.

The closest thing is probably Florida's death-defying comeback to win the 2011 NCAA Women's Tennis Championships, which featured Florida falling down 3-1 and needing wins in No. 2, No. 5, and No. 6 singles to win a national title. That was the birth of the legend of Lauren Embree, who outdueled Mallory Burdette in one of the best tennis matches you'll ever watch online, and the felling of a giant, a Stanford team that didn't lose a home match in the entire decade of the 2000s.

However, Florida only had to beat one team to win that title, and had to overcome five to win on this night, three of which (Alabama, Georgia, and UCLA) had combined to win every national title since 1996. And while a 3-1 hole at the No. 1 team in the country is deep in women's tennis, I sincerely thought that Florida was completely out of it tonight — it defies rational belief to think a team could make it back from counting a fall and win a title.

No team, it turns out, except for these Gators, who I had thought were the national championship front-runners all year. I even went so far as to proclaim this much on Twitter two weeks ago:

And then something went horribly wrong. And, still, in the most desperate moment fathomable, these Gators managed to win it all.

Fittingly, a group that flips every day knew how to flip a script.

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