There had never been a tie at the top.
Coming into Saturday's final stage of the 2014 NCAA Championships — the Super Six — women's college gymnastics had staged an annual national championship since 1967 without having two teams tie for the best score in its final competition.
Four of those national championship events happened when the national body for women's college sports was the American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation's Division for Girls' and Women's Sports, an obscure subdivision of an obscure organization without a proper Wikipedia page; another 10 were put on by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), including the final one, in 1982, that got Florida its only national title in gymnastics prior to 2013.
The NCAA began putting on its own national championships in women's gymnastics in 1982, as well, and ran ones in Division I and Division II until 1986 and in Division I alone in every year since 1987. The AIAW also had five Division II and three Division III championships during its brief existence.
That's a total of 59 national titles awarded without a tie at the top. No NCAA title had ever been determined by fewer than 0.050 points, not even with the adoption of the current scoring system — one that allows for differences in scoring as small as 0.025 points — in 1990. Georgia beat UCLA by 0.050 for the title in 1989, and Utah beat Alabama by the same margin in 1994, and that was as close as the top two teams had ever been.
Yes, other teams tied further down the standings — Alabama and Michigan shared second in 1995, and Georgia and Utah split third in 1996 — but there had never ever been a tie at the top in women's college gymnastics.
On a sensational Saturday night in Birmingham, there was one.
Florida was the team to beat all season in women's college gymnastics, and I knew it as well as anyone else did. Florida took the nation's No. 1 ranking midway through the year, but held the nation's best average score from early in the season onward, and boasted a stacked roster, one that made every event a strength, and weaknesses hard to find.
The last two national champions in the all-around, junior Kytra Hunter and sophomore Bridget Sloan, were on it, and getting better. They were clearly Florida's rocks, but they had substantial help from senior studs Mackenzie Caquatto and Alaina Johnson, both back from injuries and close enough to full health to join Hunter and Sloan as all-around performers. Junior Rachel Spicer provided depth on the vault, beam, and floor, and a strong set of underclassmen — sophomores Brigette Caquatto and Bianca Dancose-Giambattisto, and freshman Claire Boyce — filled specialist roles beautifully.
That roster clicked, and helped Florida click off incredible night after incredible night. Hunter (six 10.0s split between floor exercise and vault) and Sloan (two 10.0s, one each on floor and balance beam) would record perfect scores, and By the third Friday in February, Florida had wins over Oklahoma, Georgia, and LSU, three of the obvious top five teams in the country, and looked like the nation's clear national title favorite despite its No. 3 ranking.
But Florida found a nemesis in Alabama on the last weekend in February, falling in Tuscaloosa and breaking Florida's momentum. The Gators responded with consecutive scores over 198.000 — an arbitrary threshold, but one that separates very, very good team performances from fantastic ones — to finish their regular season, including one featuring a school-record all-around performance from Johnson on her Senior Night that could have threatened Florida's all-time scoring record had Sloan competed on more than two events.
And then they fell again to Alabama in the SEC Championships, once more struggling on their final rotation as the Crimson Tide — who lagged slightly behind the triumvirate of Florida, Oklahoma, and LSU for much of the season — roared in front of a partisan crowd.
With the NCAA Championships happening in the same Birmingham arena as the SEC Championships, fears that Florida could struggle in a de facto road meet with a title on the line crept in. And when Florida failed to best 'Bama one more time on Friday night, instead settling for a tie in the second six-team semifinal, the Gators seemed to have met their match, in the form of an excellent team and a rabid crowd that fed it.
Through the first five rotations of the Super Six, those fears seemed accurate.
Florida wasn't performing poorly, not by any stretch: The Gators sprang out to an early lead with a 49.450 on the vault in the first rotation, their third-best score on the vault in Super Six history. After a bye, they then turned in the best Super Six scores in school history on the bars (49.600) and beam (49.500), and sat at 148.550 through three rotations, very much on pace to reach the 198.000+ plateau.
The problem was that Alabama was on pace for something unfathomable. The Tide had begun its night with a massive 49.675 on the floor, then followed that with a 49.475 on the vault, edging Florida's superb number for best on the apparatus. After a bye during a rotation dominated by Florida on beam, the Tide struck again, with a great series of bars routines, and led Florida by 0.150 points heading into the final rotation.
Oklahoma had snuck right between the Tide and Gators, 0.075 points behind 'Bama and ahead of Florida, but the Sooners had the vault, the lowest-scoring event in women's artistic gymnastics, to go, and didn't have the championship pedigree of Florida and Alabama, the last two national champions.
This was destined to be a classic, I thought, with Florida and Alabama in the classic final rotation duel — Florida was on the floor, and Alabama was on the beam — and the winner would need something phenomenal to win.
Championship experience means a lot in collegiate gymnastics, if only because there's not much of it to go around.
Only five teams — Georgia, Utah, Alabama, UCLA, and Florida — had won a Division I national championship before last night. And Florida's win in 2013 was seen, rightly, as a breakthrough, because the other four teams that split the first 31 national titles awarded had ended up with at least six each. All of them had gone back-to-back at least once — Utah, Georgia, and UCLA had done it twice each, with Utah and Georgia each running off streaks of five straight titles — and the Super Six, which began in 1993, had never featured fewer than three of the four six-time champions before 2014, when both UCLA and Utah missed qualifying.
So much of the coaching and performing talent has been concentrated at those Big Four schools that they have won consistently; that winning has tended to attract more talent, and accrete more pedigree, and it's been a feedback loop for the sport's entire existence.
Florida winning in 2013 was a disruption of the natural order, but it was actually the second dramatic one in recent years: In 2009, after Georgia's fifth consecutive national title, and Courtney Kupets's third national title in the all-around, longtime coach Suzanne Yoculan, the most successful coach in NCAA gymnastics history, retired. Since her retirement, Georgia has fallen to earth under longtime Yoculan lieutenant Jay Clark, failing to qualify for the NCAA Championships in 2010 and placing well out of the running for the Super Six in 2011 and 2012, and bounced back under Danna Durante, returning to the Super Six in 2013 and 2014.
And despite Georgia's faltering, the SEC supremacy that has gripped college athletics like kudzu has gripped the South has come to gymnastics, too. Utah and UCLA combined for 14 of the first 23 NCAA Division I titles awarded, but SEC teams had won eight of the last nine entering last night, and the only national title not won by an SEC school since 2005 came in 2010, Georgia's first post-Yoculan year, and partly thanks to a pre-championship Florida team turning in a bizarre no-show at home in the Super Six. With LSU and Arkansas both making Super Six appearances of late, and Auburn turning into a NCAA Championships threat, the SEC is becoming the deepest
Teams that win national titles, gymnastics history tells us, are teams that have previously won national titles ... and Florida, which cut its teeth against two teams that did and an increasinly rugged SEC.
That narrative borne by history, and the inherent drama in a fourth Alabama-Florida duel with a title on the line — a bizarro version of the hypothetical NCAA Tournament final between the Gators and Kentucky that was just too good for this world — was why I was not alone in not having paid much attention to Oklahoma.
The Sooners have been on the rise lately, making three of the last four Super Sixes, and never finishing lower than third in those appearances. It took a still-unbelievable effort from Florida — the Gators counted a fall on the beam, then resurrected themselves with the best floor exercise performance in Super Six history, and chased down Alabama and Oklahoma with terrific rotations on the vault and bars — to steal what could have been Oklahoma's first title.
But it never quite felt like Oklahoma was ticketed for a national championship this season. The Sooners vacillated between great and merely really good early on: They beat Georgia with a 197.700 out of the gate, lost at Florida and against LSU on two of those merely really good nights, and then cranked out a 198.175 to beat LSU at a four-team neutral site meet six days later.
After a squeaker win over Alabama at another four-team neutral site meet, Oklahoma flicked on cruise control while competing in no-doubt meets against competition that never stressed it; the Sooners didn't see another team put up a score at or above 197.000 in March.
And even the Sooners' semifinal win on Friday felt a bit off: LSU struggled mightily, scoring just a 197.100, which overshadowed Oklahoma's 197.500, the best NCAA Championships score in the program's history ... and then Florida and Alabama dueled in the evening, both teams eclipsing Oklahoma's score.
I wasn't ready for what Oklahoma did last night. No one was.
Maybe not even Oklahoma.
The Sooners operated in near silence all night — on bye when Florida fired its opening salvo on vault, on bars (with the least spectacular routines of the four apparatuses) while Alabama showed out on the floor, on the beam when Florida turned in its great set of beam routines, on floor when Alabama rallied back on bars — before a show-stopping vault performance. The Sooners started with two 9.850s, followed with two 9.900s, and finished with two 9.950s, posting the night's best vault score, becoming the first team in Super Six history to score 49.500 or better on all four apparatuses, and establishing a new Super Six record for team score. Their staggering 198.175 eclipsed 2004 UCLA's 198.125, the only other 198 in Super Six history, for the top spot.
By virtue of the speed of vault, however, Oklahoma only had the lead in the clubhouse, and had to sit and wait to see if Alabama, on a fine pace entering the final rotation, or Florida, heading onto the apparatus that has been so good to the Gators over the last 12 months, could catch it.
Alabama faltered first, with Diandra Milliner falling on her leadoff beam routine. The senior had struggled with beam all year, never posting a 9.9. But Alabama recovered with a bit of redemption — Sarah DeMeo, whose fall on beam in the final rotation of the 2013 Super Six opened the door for Florida to win its first national title, scored a 9.90 to right the ship — and 9.9s from impressive freshmen Katie Bailey and Aja Sims.
Then lightning struck twice: Kim Jacob, the newly-crowned NCAA all-around champion, fell on her beam routine, scuttling Alabama's chances of winning a national title by forcing the Tide to count a fall on the beam after a night spent on a legendary pace.
Florida had begun its floor routines with some redemption of its own: Boyce's step-out in Birmingham was the first mistake on an unusually poor set of floor routines at the SEC Championships for the Gators, and helped cost Florida an SEC title. But her floor routine was clean and excellent on this night, giving the Gators a chance to shoot for big scores rather than worry about counting a fall.
And they did: Spicer and Johnson each nabbed 9.90s, and Sloan may have been underscored at a 9.925 for a clean performance of her "Seven Nation Army"-scored routine.
That set up Hunter and Bridgette Caquatto as Florida's final two finishers, and with Oklahoma done and Alabama fully fallen, both performers had individual and team narratives to rewrite.
For Kytra Hunter, this routine was all about immediate redemption. She was the nation's best on the floor exercise in the 2014 regular season: The five 10.0s awarded to her powerful routine helped her average better than a 9.95 on the apparatus and put up a RQS of 9.975. But on Friday, she picked a bad night to have a single error, and wound up with a 9.90 — tying the lowest mark of her season, and dooming her to a Sunday spent cheering on her teammates in individual event finals. Just two years removed from individual national championships on the all-around and vault, Hunter was flipping for her team, and for herself.
She scored a 9.95, and really could have scored better. Redemption was hers.
But the pressure was on Bridgey.
Bridgette Caquatto was looking for redemption, but also for vindication. Florida coach Rhonda Faehn had tinkered with her floor lineup all season, but two things remained constant from the second meet of the season onward: Boyce would lead off, and Bridgey would finish. For Boyce, that spot made some sense: Getting a talented freshman's routine out of the way first so that the older gymnasts could follow.
But using Caquatto as Florida's hammer made far less sense to me, and to many. Why let a sophomore without an obviously 10.0-worthy routine, or a single 10.0 — a single 10.0 from a judge can get a performer a 9.975 on a routine — in her career, serve as your hammer, especially with Sloan and Hunter in the mix? It didn't backfire very often, but the younger Caquatto could have won the SEC Championships with a 9.95, and turned in a 9.75, forced Florida to count a 9.725 from Spicer at NCAA Regionals with a fall, and would have gotten the Gators an outright victory over Alabama on Friday by scoring even a 9.875.
With a minimum of a 9.95 necessary to keep Florida's repeat hopes alive, Caquatto only needed to match her career high on the floor in the final routine of the Super Six to match the best score in Super Six history and at least give Florida a shot at a second.consecutive national title.
She came through with just that.
And for her, the individual redemption and vindication will most definitely be secondary to what she was able to accomplish for her team.
Judging gymnastics requires reducing art to math. And anyone watching or paying attention to last night's Super Six knew full well what the math said: A 9.95 from Caquatto would tie Oklahoma's score.
The math in gymnastics is always there, and, at least in college gymnastics' relatively simple 10.0-scale scoring system, usually weirdly comforting to those who know how it works. It's easy to have a general idea of what a team's pace is — 49.250+ on an apparatus puts a team on track for 197.000+, 49.500+ gets that team in line for 198.000+, and 9.9+ from gymnasts gets teams to 49.500+ — and only slightly harder to figure what a team needs to move ahead of another one. Watch and/or go to enough meets, and the rhythms of the arithmetic become second nature.
But no one knows what to do with ties. And Florida actually tied twice this weekend, only to have those ties adjudicated completely differently.
On Friday, both Florida and Alabama finished with 197.650 scores. Because the placement of the teams in the session would be used to determine the rotation order for the Super Six, though, a tiebreaker that added the lowest or "dropped" scores from both teams on each rotation to their total scores was used to install Florida as the No. 1 team from Semifinal II, and Alabama as the No. 2 team. (This probably significantly aided Florida: That tiebreaker was the difference between finishing on floor, nearly every team's ideal finish, and finishing on beam, nearly every team's nightmare — and Alabama's undoing.)
It's a sensible tiebreaker, and it makes sense to need a tiebreaker, but there was no functional difference between those two scores, and neither team was unequivocally better than the other under the established rules of gymnastics.
The same thing happened on Saturday night, except there was no tiebreaker. And so Florida and Oklahoma are the first two teams to share a national championships in the history of women's college gymnastics.
I probably can't change the minds of those who think that this is embarrassing for women's college gymnastics, and I suspect those minds are mostly predisposed to be uncharitable toward the sport in the first place, so I'm not too worried about changing them. But I do think this was the right outcome.
First and foremost, there's no argument that either Florida or Oklahoma wasn't deserving. The Gators and Sooners each posted the best score in a Super Six in history; had Bridgette Caquatto only managed a 9.925, Florida would have had the second-best score in Super Six history. They made history together in the ledger, and it feels fair to me to call the best duel ever in collegiate gymnastics a draw in the history books.
Second, determining a champion by tiebreaker would feel antithetical to how collegiate gymnastics works. Florida didn't "beat" Alabama so much as it outpointed Alabama on Friday night, and it certainly didn't beat Oklahoma on Saturday night — though the Gators would have won a tiebreaker last night, too. And being conscious of a tiebreaker would make the mistakes that collegiate gymnastics strives to downplay easier to harp on.
Falls are dreaded mistakes, sure, but with that tiebreaker in mind, a single fall would probably be seen as fatal to hopes of winning. Never mind that Florida counted a fall and won the national title last year: We would hear endlessly that a team's "margin for error" had dwindled to nothing.
Finally, there's no other good tiebreaker system available beyond the one that would count all 24 scores instead of four sets of the five highest scores, and it makes little sense to invent one for the contingency in which two sets of 20 numbers added together come up with the same sum. Forcing gymnasts to perform routines again after performing them once just hours before is asking for injuries, and there's no conceivable way to do that fairly, anyway: Would teams have to compete on all four apparatuses? On just their favorite? Which gymnasts would compete? Any tiebreaker would make a bigger mockery of the sport than penalty kicks and shootouts do to soccer and hockey, and overtime is out of the question.
Beyond the logical reasons against some tiebreaker to award a single title to one of two equally great teams, though, there are great sentimental reasons to reward these two teams with titles.
The last time two new teams entered the sorority of national champions in consecutive years, Georgia and Alabama had just done it in 1987 and 1988. It took 26 years to double the number of programs that have won NCAA championships; it took six years, in the first place, to produce a non-Utah national champion. Parity would be good for college gymnastics, which will never be truly popular on a national level — unlike the collegiate women's sports like basketball and soccer, which work symbiotically with professional leagues and the Olympics, gymnastics has to compete with the Olympics, with most talented gymnasts choosing either pursuit of Olympic glory or a lower trajectory — and could use a bunch of different teams being interesting to stoke regional interest in the sport.
An Oklahoma title lets Oklahoma's program sell itself to fans as the defending national champions, and could, perhaps, inspire a sleeping giant like, say, Texas — which would have a rich recruiting base from the first day of its hypothetical gymnastics program's existence — to enter the sport. And Oklahoma sharing the title with Florida, which had one of the most talented rosters in collegiate gymnastics history, almost legitimizes that title more than Oklahoma winning it outright would have.
Plus, anyone who was watching knows full damn well that what happened, and was absolutely thrilled by the result — even Alabama fans, who took Icarus's ride to the highest highs and the lowest lows. This Super Six was a win, even if your team lost, because it had everything.
Saturday night, Florida and Oklahoma — and Alabama, if we're being honest — staged the greatest college gymnastics meet in history, and came away with a remarkable result. And I'm really, really excited, as a Florida fan, that our Gators won a national title.
But I'm excited for Oklahoma, too, and sorry — somehow! — for Alabama, so close to a home-state title, and for LSU, so close to breaking through all year and yet so far removed from true greatness on this night. (I'm not sorry for Georgia.)
Florida won. Oklahoma won. College gymnastics — which won me over two years ago, when I first went to a meet, and which will win you over if you let it — won.
And I can't help feeling like that's a really good thing.