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Florida fights back after rough start to earn school's first gymnastics title with a 'lights out' performance

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 8:42 p.m. MDT

LOS ANGELES — The Florida Gators earned their first national gymnastics title Saturday, putting on a performance that proves the ability to keep fighting can make you a champion.

Florida started Saturday’s Super Six Finals on beam, the apparatus that seemed to be the nemesis of even the country’s best gymnasts, and the Gators endured two falls that left them in a massive statistical hole.

“I would say it was not an ideal opening to the competition,” said Florida coach Rhonda Faehn after the Gators earned a 197.575 to beat the rest of the field. “What I loved was this team rallied and didn’t let that affect them.” In fact, a teary-eyed Faehn said she called her gymnasts together after they finished beam and told them their only option was to give the rest of the competition everything they had.

“I said, ‘We’re that good. Don’t worry. Just compete to your hearts' content,'” she said. “We came back on floor and, really, it was lights out. And that continued the rest of the meet. I think this speaks volumes for their desire, their passion and their never-give-up attitude.”

That attitude was epitomized in a couple of performances.

First, Kytra Hunter, who fell on beam, earning a 9.325, scored a 9.975 on floor in what looked like a flawless routine.

“When I fell, I was like, ‘Holy cow! What just happened?’” she recalled. “I had to get myself back together, and sticking my landing after that was big for me.”

After the two falls on beam, senior Marissa King, who was celebrating her 22nd birthday Saturday, had to perform the team’s final beam routine. As Faehn tried to prepare her, King brushed her coach's kind words away and simply said, “I got this.”

“I felt like I had a duty, and I was not coming off that beam,” she said. “I’m going to go as big as I can, do as well as I can because everything counts. … It really was just lights out, no doubt. I was going to hit that routine no matter what.”

Florida wasn’t the only team to struggle on beam, as defending national champion Alabama would've earned its third-straight title were it not for a wobbly routine followed by a fall. Oklahoma ended up earning second with a score of 197.375, while Alabama’s struggles on beam meant a third-place finish with a score of 197.350. UCLA was fourth with a 197.100, finishing with a troublesome performance on vault. LSU was fifth with 197.050, scoring the lowest on beam, and Georgia was sixth with a 196.675.

Faehn said they were not aware that the national title was being determined by their bar set and Alabama’s beam performance. While Florida earned a respectable 49.475 on bars, including a 9.95 by Alaina Johnson, who just returned from multiple stress fractures in her back, Alabama was recovering from its beam struggles with near-perfect routines.

“After we finished, I pulled the team into a huddle, and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’,” she said. “I definitely was not aware of what was going on, and that was kind of a hard time for all of us. When the results did come out and we saw that we won, it was very emotional for all of us. It’s been years in the making.”

Florida becomes just the fifth program to earn a national title in the 32-year history of NCAA championships. The top-seeded and top-ranked Gators would seem to be the favorite on paper. But coach after coach reiterated from regionals to Saturday’s post-competition interviews that college gymnastics has never been more competitive.

The parity has made it difficult for the Gators to break through and that caused some to wonder if they could handle the highest-pressure situations.

They answered that question with an emphatic, “Absolutely.”

“It’s been tough, and it’s been hard,” said Faehn. “The last few years we’ve endured a lot of scrutiny in the media, and I just told the athletes to ignore everything. Shut your Twitter down, your social media. Don’t follow anything. We know what our goal is and we know what we’re capable of. It was nice that we were able to quiet the outside and just focus on what we’re able to do. This is a great and special moment for all of us.”

Freshman and former Olympic hopeful Bridget Sloan said the team has felt like it had the talent to win the title all season.

“This is absolutely awesome,” she said. “Honestly, we just came together as a team. There wasn’t one person who didn’t contribute. After beam, when we were on the bye, we just said, “We are unstoppable. It’s amazing the talent we have. So who’s ready to do a 10.0 floor routine?’ And we came pretty close to 10.0s on some of those. … We just fought back, and that’s what you do in competition — you fight. Even if you make mistakes, you fight to the end and you can have a chance to win.”

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