Alabama remains positive under pressure

After observing them, one wouldn’t know the Alabama gymnastics team was about to compete for a national championship.

No, the Tide was doing something not normally seen by athletes as they prepare to compete for the ultimate prize in their sport — they were smiling.

“Really? It’s a fun thing, to compete,” junior Ashley Sledge said. “It’s a fun thing to have the opportunity to compete at the national championship. Only 12 schools in the nation are able to do that, so that’s a fun thing to do.”

Alabama will compete in the NCAA Championship this weekend in Duluth, Ga., starting Friday night. The Tide is looking for its sixth national championship under head coach Sarah Patterson and in school history.

There is a significant amount of pressure that comes with competing at the national championships — especially for a program like Alabama, with its rich history and tradition. But the Tide has been there before; 30 straight championship appearances mean this pressure is not a new feeling.

“I don’t think it should be pressure,” Patterson said. “I want the ladies to enjoy it. This is what they’ve worked all year for. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful. If you can just take that pressure off of them and let them enjoy the competition and keep their confidence, I think they can do better.”

One situation the Tide is not so familiar with, however, is being in the position to repeat as national champions. Alabama has taken home first place at nationals five times, but never twice in a row.

But Alabama will be looking to do just that in 2012.

“There’s definitely no talk about trying to repeat a national championship,” said Ashley Priess, a senior and one of the vocal leaders for Alabama. “Our goal every year and what we stay consistent with is trying to be on the floor the last night of the national championship with the opportunity to win a title.”

There is another Alabama coach who understands the pressure of trying to repeat as national champions. Nick Saban’s football team fell short in 2010, losing three games after an undefeated 2009 season, but will have another chance in 2012.

Saban spoke to the gymnastics team before they left for Duluth.

“He really talked about taking one step at a time and not focusing on the outcome,” junior Marissa Gutierrez said. “It really showed us to take every routine, every turn, every practice play-by-play and not focus on the big picture.”

Junior Ashley Sledge talked about Saban’s message of consistency and continuity.

“He just really stressed the importance of not changing your performance to fit the circumstance,” she said. “We train a certain way to perform a certain way. Whether we’re competing against a [Division-3 school] or if we’re competing against UCLA at the national championship, it doesn’t matter, the performance stays the same.”

But, regardless of their performance, the Tide gymnasts will go about their business just as they have all week and all season: With smiles on their faces.