Passion, Athleticism, Fierce Competition – SEC Gymnastics

It’s not often that an SEC sports fan is simultaneously exposed to the Gator chomp,  a “Roll Tide” chorus, the calling of the Dawgs and a rapid-fire “LSU! LSU!” chant. But that was the scene on Saturday night at Verizon Arena as the second-half of SEC gymnastic championship action began.

This marked the third time I’ve been to an SEC gymnastics championship, and each time I’m struck by the team camaraderie. There aren’t many athletic events that showcase the spirit of as many teams. The North Little Rock meet featured eight teams last night, with four competing in the early afternoon, and the four top-ranked squads hitting the bars, vault, beam and mat at 6 p.m. They performed for about 5,400 people, many decked out in their team’s colors, carrying hand-made signs and calling out their familiar cheers after each event.

Florida was expected to take home the title, and it lived up to the hype, scoring 198.0 to win the championship. It pains me to ever admit anything positive about a team that rises from Gainesville, but these women were fierce. Before each Gator started her floor exercise, she looked like she just knew she was going to own it. And she did. Each of the Florida floor exercises scored at least a 9.9., for a total of 49.625. That was the highest team event score of the evening.

Official results had Alabama second with a score of 197.8 and LSU third with 197.7. Arkansas put in a strong showing in the early match, and finished with a sixth-place score of 196.4.

Since college, my exposure to gymnastics has pretty much been limited to finding the occasional SEC meet on TV, and watching the Olympic trials and competitions. But it’s always so much more fun in person.

It’s hard to beat the passion of these small but loyal followings. Take the Florida fans who drove nearly 700 miles to root these women on. They wore obnoxious sparkly blue hats that glowed with LED lights that were distracting even from the opposite end of the fully-lit arena. A few moms even donned tutus that coordinated with their daughters’ uniforms.

With every sport, there’s fan adoration, but it has a different feel in gymnastics. Maybe that’s because the throngs of fans are mostly young girls.

When the Gym’Backs took their seats in the arena a couple of hours after they competed, a few dozen kids and tweens swarmed them, demanding autographs and lobbing questions: “What’s your favorite event?” “When did you start training?” “Can I get a photo with you?”

Sure, there are some problems with gymnastics culture, but I’m always impressed by the confidence, focus and dedication of SEC gymnasts. It’s stunning to see these athletes pull off near-perfect routines while three other distinct fan bases applaud different ongoing events and floor exercise music jams overhead. There’s so much going on during these meets that as a fan it’s hard to focus on your own team. These athletes have incredible concentration.

Many of them are also excellent students, making SEC academic honor roll each semester. Alabama’s team had 13 women on the list last spring after winning back-to-back NCAA gymnastic championships. It’s refreshing to see girls have these types of athletes as their role models.

As for my own fan experience, it was a little disappointing to see the Georgia team walk out with fourth place, but they had plenty of great showings and a couple of 10.0 individual judge scores.

I didn’t fill out a bracket for March Madness, and I’ve been feeling a little left out since football season ended. Last night was a great reminder that there are other important SEC sports that unite their fan bases and showcase tremendous athleticism.

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