By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
SEC Q&A with Florida coach Rhonda Faehn
SEC Gymnastics Championship Central
DULUTH, Ga. – The power of four.
No, it’s not a complex math problem or an elaborate equation, but it is spelling success for the top-ranked University of Florida gymnastics team.
It’s this simple: four gymnasts who each regularly compete in all four events (vault, bars, beam and floor exercise), all of whom have turned in season-best scores that stand among the nation’s top-11.
Ashanee Dickerson, Kytra Hunter, Alaina Johnson and Marissa King are Florida’s four all-arounders who lead the No. 1 Gators into this weekend’s Southeastern Conference Gymnastics Championships held at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
Florida will be seeking its second conference title in the last three years after winning the 2010 event in Jacksonville, Fla., but the quest for the crown won’t be easy. This year’s meet features five teams ranked in the nation’s top-10. The league’s other two teams also are among the nation’s top-25 squads.
And while Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn says it will take a collective effort from each of her gymnasts, she also understands the impact that her big four can have in pursuit of a title.
“It’s definitely incredible and extremely helpful just for the entire team because all four of them are incredibly talented,” Faehn said. “On any given day, any four of those can challenge for any event title, not just the all-around. With that said, they all really feed off each other and are really close and supportive of each other. It’s nice to see that continued team spirit knowing just how good they really are; there is no individual mindset.”
The numbers are a bit staggering.
When you look at the chart for the top all-around performances this season, it’s littered by Florida athletes. The Gators lead the nation in both number of appearances in that chart with seven top-totals and the number of different gymnasts represented with four.
King, who has posted the nation’s seventh-best all-around total at 39.650 and is ranked first in the nation in the balance beam, says the biggest advantage to having four all-arounders on her team is the confidence it gives each of the athletes.
“It’s just a great strength to have on the team knowing that you have four girls on the team who do all the events,” King said. “There are so many girls that do the all-around and girls who can do the other events really well that there’s always a great feeling of confidence knowing that you have someone who can take your place if something goes wrong.”
Dickerson, who has registered three of the nation’s top-16 all-around totals this season, feels that Florida’s four all-arounders give the Gators an added strength over the competition.
“It’s better to have more people who do the all-around because it shows that you have a strong team,” Dickerson said. “Anyone can step in there at any time and do the job.”
Faehn, who is in her 10th season as Florida’s head coach, doesn’t necessarily believe that her team’s emphasis on the all-around is a superior style to any other team, but knows that it’s definitely a strategy that plays perfectly to the strengths of her current squad.
“It just depends on the team,” Faehn said. “I feel that because they’re such phenomenal athletes that it is helpful to us. It’s exciting because they help push each other, and balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good mix.”
If Florida’s all-around performers needed any added confidence heading into Saturday’s SEC Championships, their last meet should have achieved that goal.
In a March 16 win against No. 7 Utah, Johnson, King and Dickerson swept the top three spots in the all-around competition, each recording totals of 39.625 or better. A trio of gymnasts have turned in all-around totals of 39.625 in a single meet just six times since the 1997 campaign.
The three Gators were the first to accomplish that feat in collegiate gymnastics since Stanford did so on March 20, 2004.
“It was exciting to know that we were all capable of having the best meet of our lives,” Dickerson said. “We are all able to win at any given moment. It doesn’t matter who wins or anything, it just matters who can help the team.”
King agrees, saying that the feat was a pleasant surprise and serves as a great model for how Florida can approach this Saturday’s meet.
“I vaguely kept track of how I was doing, but I didn’t add up any of the scores in my head, so when I saw how close it was, it was kind of exciting to see that we all came in very close against one another,” King said. “I think it shows that we all have great potential to be in the top spot. A huge part of that night was that we started off the first two events so well that it really carried through to all the others. Even though we’re all on the same team, we’re all trying to do our very best. It’s exciting to know that some of us can do really, really well coming into the all-around competition.”
For Johnson, who turned in the nation’s third-best score at that meet (39.675), it was just a tangible indication of the strength and depth of Florida’s team.
“Our team is very strong and it’s awesome that the top-three all-around winners were from our team,” Johnson said. “That just shows how strong our team is and how we work together. We’re always there for each other.”
Every team has them; great teams know how to achieve them.
For Faehn, it is important that her athletes stay focused on the end result, whether that athlete is one of her four star all-arounders or not.
Her practice routine dictates that philosophy.
“We organize and design our practices so that everyone is training at the same time,” Faehn said. “If someone is only competing in two events, they are still training the other events or doing conditioning, rehab or extra training. Everyone is a part of the success, whether they are competing in one, two, three or four events. It doesn’t change what our goals are or what our outlook is. Everyone is an incredible component of what we are doing.”
Johnson says that if not practiced properly, the all-around can take its toll on an athlete, which is why Faehn specifically engineers her practices to keep her athletes healthy.
“For the girls who do all around, it’s harder on our bodies, so we have to focus on making sure that we’re monitoring stuff we do in practice and don’t do too much,” Johnson said. “We do bars and beam every day and then we’ll alternate floor and vault, so if it’s a floor day, we either don’t do vault at all or we’ll just do drills. That helps a lot not having to do all four events hard every day, especially on floor and vault, which are the two pounding events.”
Hunter, a freshman who has won four all-around events this season, says the fact that all of the athletes on the team train similarly has proven to be beneficial.
“We train all four events, so it’s not any different than any other girls who are just competing in one or two events,” Hunter said. “I think it’s good because if someone isn’t having a great week, we can put someone else in. It’s good practice for the postseason as far as just being prepared.”
Rhythm is one of the key components in the sport of gymnastics, and Florida’s four all-around competitors believe that it is that rhythm that helps them succeed throughout the meet.
They like the fact that they compete the entire meet without taking an event off.
“It definitely helps because you don’t have to get prepared for one event and then bring it down for the next,” Dickerson said. “You can just keep going hard for the whole meet.”
King agrees, saying she likes the mindset of contributing throughout the course of the competition.
“I am happy to do all four events because once I get into that rhythm and that flow, I like to continue with that,” she said. “Not having a break in between helps me, just because once I get going, I like to stay going. That’s the same thing with the other girls. We just want to get into that mindframe, just one event after another without a break in between. We enjoy doing all of the events.”
Faehn says that while rhythm is important, in a competition like the SEC Championships, athletes must be prepared to maintain that flow and excitement with breaks in the competition due to byes.
“In a competition like SECs, there are potentially three bye rotations, so you still have to know when to get up and when to get down,” Faehn said. “It’s a very, very long competition. It’s individual to the athlete and what they need to do to be prepared.”
The SEC Championships may be on the horizon, but for Florida’s four all-arounders, they don’t plan to treat this weekend’s competition any differently than any other meet. And why should they? After all, the plan so far has translated into an 11-1 record and a top national ranking.
“Our mindset is going to be just the same as normal and just the way it has been for all of the other competitions that we’ve had,” Johnson said. “All of us are so excited and we just can’t wait to get out there and compete and have a blast out there. The most important thing we can do is to do what we’ve been doing and not change anything else. We want to have fun, stay close as a team and support each other.”
The Gators expect that if they handle their business as they have all season, at the end of the day, the results will speak for themselves.
“We’re just going in there, having fun and not worrying about what happens,” Dickerson said. “Of course we want to win, but we’re just going to go out there and do like we’ve done in the gym and just have fun with it.”
The Gators will be looking for their second SEC Championship in the last three years and have won seven previous times in the history of the program (1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1989, 2007 and 2010) … Florida turned in the nation’s second-highest score of 2012 (197.90) to end its regular season with a win against top-10 foe Utah … Five of the nation’s top-15 team scores of 2012 were earned by the Gators – no other school with a score among the top-15 is represented more than three times … Junior Ashanee Dickerson has posted 55 career victories, which has moved her into a tie for fifth on Florida’s all-time career event titles chart … Dickerson has claimed 10 such event crowns this season … Freshman Kytra Hunter opened her Gator career with wins in six of the nine floor exercise competitions in which she has participated … Junior Marissa King has turned in her collegiate best for the balance beam three times in the last seven meets … Every Florida gymnast has a “Gator Chomp” choreographed into her floor exercise routine.