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Clearing the bar: How Florida gymnastics surprised to win its third straight national title

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This was the year it wasn't supposed to happen for Florida. And yet the Gators got it done.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The hoary cliché is that there are six questions that journalism endeavors to answer: The first five are the Five Ws — "Who?" "What?" "When?" "Where?" and "Why?" — and the sixth is "How?"

The answers to the first four are why most stories matter to most people. They're the nuts and bolts of our storytelling tradition. Certainly, they're why our story of the Florida Gators gymnastics team winning its third straight national title on Saturday night at the 2015 NCAA Super Six is one of our most popular stories of the year.

But it's the how and why of virtually anything that I find most compelling.

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This year shouldn't have ended with Florida winning a title, especially not after how the Gators got their championships over last two years.

Florida's path to this national title truly begins in 2012, when the Gators had their best roster ever, and yet came up just short of Alabama in the Super Six. That team had a freshman wunderkind by the name of Kytra Hunter, who won the first NCAA all-around national title in school history, and it had a blindingly bright future.

Florida made good on that promise in 2013, when it had unquestionably its best season of gymnastics ever, and won its first NCAA title. That team, with the sensational Bridget Sloan added to a rotation of contributors that already had Hunter and a slew of fantastic upperclassmen, posted the nation's best scores time and again, and set new program records even more frequently; by the end of the year, the 2013 Gators had three of Florida's five best scores ever, including the No. 1 and No. 2 marks.

What's more, that team hit its stride when it had to: From March 1 on, the Gators didn't score under 197.575 in any event — and that 197.575 was a Super Six score that included a counted fall. And Florida redeemed itself after that fall, which came on the balance beam, by posting what was then the program's best floor score ever, and what remains the best score on a floor exercise rotation in NCAA Championships history, a massive 49.725 that allowed the Gators to seize their first title.

In 2014, Florida was the nation's best team again in the regular season, if slightly less deep and more inconsistent than its immediate predecessor. The departures of Ashanée Dickerson and Marissa King from the 2013 squad left the Gators with fewer all-around studs, and coach Rhonda Faehn had to lean on Hunter and Sloan to produce, as senior Alaina Johnson, a program stalwart working back into form after injuries, was the team's only other all-around competitor.

Yes, Florida set new program records for rotation scores on the balance beam and floor exercise (the latter on a truly insane night against Georgia that featured back-to-back 10.0s from Hunter and Sloan) during the regular season, decisively beat both then-No. 1 Oklahoma and top-five team LSU in home meets by more than half a point each, and finished its regular season with back-to-back scores above the 198-point plateau.

But it also fell at Alabama, placed second to Alabama at the SEC Championships, and posted a substandard 197.050 score in NCAA Regional competition, leaving plenty of room for doubt en route to a Super Six that would take place in Birmingham, the same setting where the Gators had already lost to Alabama once.

And then, when it mattered most in 2014, Florida responded with brilliance, earning a first-place finish in preliminary competition before staging an epic duel with Oklahoma on the evening of the Super Six. The Gators and Sooners posted matching 198.175 scores, the best marks in Super Six history, and became the first teams in NCAA gymnastics history to share the national title.

Suddenly, after more than three decades of a four-team hegemony in the sport — Alabama, Georgia, UCLA, and Utah had been the only teams to win NCAA national titles prior to 2013 — two new sorority members had been inducted in two years.

And with Florida slipping again in 2015 — mostly as a result of Sloan sustaining a high ankle sprain on her first floor exercise of the season, which forced a trio of freshmen, notably vaulter extraordinaire Alex McMurty, into significant roles, and left the Gators with just Hunter as a reliable all-arounder — it stood to reason that, this year, another team might follow its first title with its second, or yet another new national champion would emerge.

Oklahoma staged its own spirited defense of the national championship it split with Florida, earning the nation's No. 1 ranking with thoroughly solid performances all year. When Florida, still without a fully healthy Sloan, came to Norman for a showdown with the Sooners, it got shown up: The Gators' massive 198.100 score, the program's second-best in a true road meet ever, was only good for staying within sneezing distance of Oklahoma's dust, as the Sooners posted a titanic 198.500, the No. 6 score in NCAA history, on Senior Night.

And then there was LSU, likely the next program to break into the national champions' circle. The Tigers downed Alabama in Tuscaloosa (a once-in-a-decade feat that Oklahoma would replicate weeks later), gave Florida and Georgia thumpings in Baton Rouge, and hung with Oklahoma in an early-season meeting. The Tigers were showy and explosive, having posted two of their own scores in excess of 198.000.

Add in Alabama, which upset Florida and LSU for an SEC title for the second straight year, resurgent Utah, and upstarts Auburn, Michigan, and Stanford, and the field was also deeper with dark horses than in recent years. Oklahoma entered the NCAA Championships as the favorite, but Florida and Utah posted the best scores of Friday's preliminary rounds — and each Super Six team had scored between 197.000 and 197.500 points on Friday.

This Super Six was set for drama — and the preliminary flameout by LSU, which counted two falls on the balance beam, was proof that no team was safe.

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Florida began Saturday night in the most precarious position of all the Super Six participants. The Gators had to start the night on the balance beam, their and every team's most dangerous apparatus, and could have been out of the running by the end of the first rotation.

Instead, Gators gymnasts posted four 9.85s and Hunter's 9.90, for a 49.300 score that had them squarely in the mix for title contention.

By the time Florida hit the floor during the third rotation, Auburn (which scored just 48.425 on the balance beam) and Stanford (which notched a 48.875 on the floor) had dug holes too deep to emerge from, and Oklahoma's 49.175 on the floor — its worst score on the floor all season — had opened the door for Alabama, Florida, and Utah. The Utes led at 49.575, thanks to a scintillating bars performance capped by Georgia Dabritz's 10.0 on the apparatus, with Alabama sitting at 49.425 after a fine set of vaults. (It was Dabritz's second consecutive 10.0 on the bars — and she became the first performer in NCAA Championships history to record 10.0s on consecutive days.)

And then the Gators floored everyone.

Florida posted five scores of 9.90 or better on the floor, and a combined score of 49.650 — third-best in Super Six history. None of the six performers in the rotation set or tied a career high on the floor — though two of them literally couldn't do better than tie past 10.0s, and anchor performer Bridgette Caquatto would've needed a 10.0 to set a new career best — but they combined for Florida's second-best score of the season on the floor, harkening back to phenomenal floor work of years past at the best possible time.

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Sloan, in particular, was a key to the Gators' floor score. She performed her 2014 routine, set to "Seven Nation Army" — not the new 2015 routine that she debuted at Ball State earlier this season, one that she couldn't complete after sustaining that ankle sprain. She performed it flawlessly, one day after botching a tumbling pass and scoring a 9.625 in the event that cost her a chance to vie for the NCAA all-around crown or for an individual event title on the floor.

And she did it in just her fifth competitive floor routine of the season.

Sloan worked back into Florida's lineup a little over a month after sustaining her injury, but began her return on the uneven bars, the least taxing event on a weak ankle, then added the balance beam and vault. It wasn't until NCAA Regional competition that the 2013 NCAA all-around champion took the floor again — and though she promptly threw up a 39.800, the nation's second-best all-around score of the season, her absence from Florida's lineup, and later from all-around competition, helped depress both the Gators' performance and expectations for this team.

With Sloan, who is almost inarguably the most talented gymnast in the country at full health, and perhaps the most talented gymnast to compete at the collegiate level since Georgia's Courtney Kupets, Florida's ceiling is much, much higher. She was the missing piece that pushed Florida over the national championship hump in 2013, and she's pushed the rest of her teammates to do their best by being at her best throughout her Gators career.

She's as transformative an athlete as any of Florida's programs have ever had, and the history of Florida gymnastics can be fairly neatly divided into a frustrating period of almosts and so closes before she arrived, and the breakthroughs that have come since.

After her star-crossed season, and her uncharacteristic stumble on Friday, Sloan nailing a floor routine as part of a Gators uprising on the mat felt like a sign of things to come on Saturday. It felt like a really good one.

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From the end of the third rotation on, Florida was positioned to win a third straight title. The Gators had outdone Utah's huge bars score on the floor, and topped the Utes on the beam. Oklahoma's 49.475 on vault actually lost the Sooners ground, relative to Florida and Utah. And Alabama had posted a relatively low score (49.275) on the bars, which had been ripe for big moves throughout the competition, dating back to Friday.

So when Bridgette Caquatto led off Florida's vault rotation by under-rotating her landing and having to sit down on the mat, it put the Gators in danger of losing that top spot. (Caquatto was the last gymnast to take the floor for Florida, and then had to vault mere minutes afterward, a time crunch that Rhonda Faehn would later lament.)

The Gators were unfazed. Florida's next five vaulters hit, four of them scoring 9.9s, and the Gators would get through three rotations at a stellar 148.400, within range of the 198-point plateau. Utah still lurked, at 148.250, but Oklahoma's lackluster pass on the bars left the Sooners a full half-point back, at 147.900, and in need of a miracle, while Alabama would have to muster a massive score on the floor to make the Gators and Utes sweat.

And it would be the Utes, not their SEC rivals, that put the pressure on the Gators. Utah finished on vault, the quickest of the four rotations, and finished beautifully. Four Utes scored 9.9s, with Dabritz posting a 9.975, the best score by any gymnast on the vault over the 98 routines performed in team competition.

When Utah was finished with its vault assault, the Utes had a 197.800 — and Florida, with two gymnasts left to perform on the bars, needed a couple of big scores to overtake them.

The first four gymnasts who went for Florida, the No. 1 team in the country on the uneven bars coming into the NCAA Championships, performed solid routines, with three of them netting 9.85s, and a Hunter routine that featured a big bounce forward earning a surprisingly high 9.825. Those scores were good. But they would not have been enough for Florida to win.

It was up to Sloan, the veteran who made her return to competition on the bars and the 2014 NCAA uneven bars champion, and McMurtry, the freshman whose back pain has prevented her from competing as an all-around performer, to stick their landings, in both the literal and figurative senses, and lift the Gators.

Sloan executed her difficult, powerful routine flawlessly to my layman's eye, and didn't move on her landing. She earned a 9.950 — and got a 10.0 from one judge.

McMurtry stepped up to the bars for a less complicated, cleaner routine. And she was every bit as flawless as Sloan, and maybe even better on the landing.

McMurtry needed a 9.90 to give Florida another shared national title, this one split with Utah. She needed a 9.925 — her career high, notched four times in 2015 — to make Florida's third straight title an outright victory.

She got a 9.950.

Dabritz had the best score of the night on the bars to put Utah in a position to win the national title.

On the last two bars routines of the evening, Sloan and McMurtry tied for second.

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I've watched the last four NCAA Super Six competitions with far more interest than I ever would've dreamed I would devote to college gymnastics. And I've caught four excruciatingly dramatic competitions.

In 2012, Alabama staged an all-time heist by working the balance beam for a come-from-behind victory. In 2013, Florida returned the favor with an even better showing on the floor. Last year, I saw the greatest duel in Super Six history, one that produced two truly deserving winners.

This year, I saw relief.

Gymnasts are an emotional bunch, always literally and figuratively balancing between triumph and tragedy. Working for months and months to get to the point where winning a national championship or settling for second place comes down to less than half a minute of performance can leave a team on edge, and Florida undeniably was right there on the verge of ecstasy or agony last night.

Florida had been a sleeping giant under Faehn for years prior to 2013. When they finished no worse than fourth in four consecutive Super Six competitions from 2006 to 2009, it looked like there was merely a hump to get over. But when Florida fell back to fifth in 2010 on its home floor, then failed to make the Super Six in 2011, the hump felt like a mountain. In 2012, when Florida came agonizingly close, one had to wonder whether it would ever happen.

So in 2013, when it was the first time, and when it took a comeback like the one they had watched in 2012, the national title was a catharsis for the Gators. In 2014, they knew what it was like to climb the mountain — but they ultimately had to reach a new summit, and getting there was their crowning achievement.

This year, these Gators had to do something even tougher: Get back up after falling down.

It's never easy to climb a summit, but it's easier to maintain an upward trajectory: Go up, and refuse to slide back, and you'll eventually reach the top. This was a younger, greener team, one that operated without the safety nets of a deep roster or a healthy Sloan playing savior to lean on all year. Florida lost its alpha-dog spot when Sloan went down, and was not the favorite for a national title at any point this year after her injury; really, Florida wasn't even the favorite on Saturday night until Oklahoma stumbled.

It struggled. It lost. It was compared to its predecessors, in minds if not in print, and found lacking. It was not expected to win this national championship.

It won it all anyway.

They won it all anyway.

And it sounded to me like, when McMurtry's score was revealed, the Gators roared just a little bit louder than they did the first (or second) time.

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The history this program has made in the last few years is staggering. Florida's now just the third program in history with three straight NCAA titles. It's the second program, following Utah, to win the NCAA team title and have the all-around NCAA champion with different gymnasts in a three-peat. The Gators had no NCAA titles just three years ago; now, they're just two off the lead for national titles this century.

And the future remains blindingly bright. While losing 2015 NCAA all-around champion Hunter and senior contributors Rachel Spicer and Kiersten Wang is bound to hurt, another year of seasoning for the freshman class that McMurtry led and another superb recruiting class should keep Florida among the nation's best teams. With Sloan returning in 2016, the Gators have a very good chance to become the first program to claim four NCAA all-around titles in five years, and Sloan could solidify herself as the best collegiate gymnast since (and perhaps other than) Kupets by winning other individual honors.

Oh, and in its 33 national championships, Florida's had a three-peat before — the men's indoor track team won three NCAA titles from 2010 to 2012 — but never a four-peat.

Looking back and looking forward, though, threatens to get in the way of looking around, and simply taking in what these Gators have done. "So what?" and "What's next?" are questions that produce even more tantalizing answers than the basic ones, but they distract from the best question for this moment: "How does it feel?"

The answer, of course, is that it's great to be a Florida Gator.