SALT LAKE CITY — Most coaches will say being a participant in the championship isn’t enough.
But the country’s best gymnastics coaches are the first to admit that college gymnastics has become so competitive that even powerhouse programs feel a sense of relief just to be competing at the NCAA Nationals at UCLA next weekend.
That’s not to say every one of those coaches doesn’t feel their team has a legitimate chance to win it all.
“We know it’s going to be a blood bath to get to the Super Six, and we’re really excited for that challenge,” said UCLA head coach Valorie Kondos Field, whose Bruins will host the 12 teams that finished in the top two of each regional meet at Pauley Pavilion on April 19-21.
Other coaches echoed that sentiment in a teleconference featuring the 12 head coaches who will vie for a national title next weekend.
“Regionals just continues to be amazingly exciting and challenging on every level,” said Oklahoma head coach K.J. Kindler. “If that’s what’s going to happen, it’s going to be an exciting meet.”
The Bruins will compete in the evening session along with the Sooners (No. 2), Utah (No. 10), Alabama (No. 3), Michigan (No. 7) and Arkansas (No. 11). The coaches discussed the challenges each team has faced, including losing top gymnasts to injuries and battling the mental aspects of the high-pressure competition.
“This team has really improved beyond our wildest dreams, and we’re looking forward to taking them to nationals next week,” said Utah co-head coach Megan Marsden.
Friday’s semifinal starts at 1 p.m. with No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 9 Stanford and No. 12 Illinois. The second session begins at 7 p.m. The top three from each session advance to Saturday’s final, as well as individual and all-around contenders.
Kondos Field said the challenge of just getting to Saturday’s Super Six will take a team’s best effort.
“In the old days, you had the luxury of kind of holding back, maybe even sitting someone out, before you had to put your big guns in,” she said. “I don’t think there is a team in our session that couldn’t win it all.”
Defending national champion Alabama is the team that hosted Utah last weekend when it qualified for regionals.
Marsden talked about earning the school’s 38th consecutive trip to nationals and what kind of pressure that puts on this year’s young team. She also discussed the difference between competing at an elite level versus participating in collegiate gymnastics.
“I’ve had the opportunity to experience both within the same season,” she said. “The biggest difference is what happens when you compete as and for a team and how you can rise above anything you can do alone.”
She said college gymnastics isn’t just about the skills, it’s about the energy that comes from the team aspect of the sport.
“It’s not just watching,” Marsden said. “It’s a feeling that comes over you.”