Before the 1988 season, things were different. Instead of competing full-time in front of thousands of fans in Coleman Coliseum, the Crimson Tide split home meets between Coleman and the much smaller Foster Auditorium, where it would usually compete in front of only hundreds.
In fact, attendance was so low that former Alabama gymnast Alli Beldon Kustoff remembers personally recruiting fans to attend the Crimson Tide’s meets in the mall parking lot during her first few seasons.
That changed during the 1988 season, when Alabama boasted one of the best squads in the country and drew thousands of fans to Coleman.
It changed even more drastically after that same Alabama team claimed the school’s first ever gymnastics national championship. That year, Alabama also won the SEC Championship and NCAA Regionals – a three-part act that would not be replicated by the Crimson Tide until 2011.
Winning the 1988 national championship not only cured the Crimson Tide’s attendance problems for good, it changed the course of Alabama gymnastics for the next three decades. Since Alabama earned its first national title, it has won five more, along with eight SEC championships and 26 NCAA Regional championships.
The team responsible for starting it all will be honored on its thirtieth anniversary before the Crimson Tide’s home meet against Kentucky on Friday night.
“I couldn’t believe it really it had been thirty years,” Kustoff said. “I just feel so lucky to have had the experience and then to be honored again makes it that much more special.”
Kustoff and Kathy Bilodeau Varney, who shared captain duties and were the lone seniors on the 1988 championship team, will be in attendance. As will legendary former Alabama coach Sarah Patterson, who led them to a championship and Alabama gymnastics to prominence.
“I’m so excited about this weekend, in celebrating this anniversary of this championship team,” Patterson said. “But more for me to be able to look at them and say ‘without you, none of this could have happened.’”
The ceremony is a part of Alabama’s annual alumni weekend: an event during which Alabama welcomes former gymnasts from all generations back to Tuscaloosa. Typically, anywhere from 60 to 80 former gymnasts return every year, bringing their spouses and children with them.
Created by Patterson, Alumni Weekend embodies the sense of family and tradition that she worked diligently to incorporate into the program during her 36-year tenure.
Even though she stepped down four years ago, the essence of Patterson’s message has never left the gym. It hangs in crimson and white letters under a gray Alabama ‘A’ in the practice facility: “Tradition never graduates.”
Her former gymnasts take that message to heart to this day. No matter when they competed at Alabama, Kustoff still calls all current and past Alabama gymnasts her “teammates.”
Acting head coach Dana Duckworth possesses a special perspective on alumni weekend. Having been involved with the Alabama program as either a gymnast or a coach for over twenty years, Duckworth is familiar with gymnasts from all eras.
“I feel the continuity of our staff and then me having been a gymnast, and then a volunteer, and then an assistant, I know everybody front and back end,” Duckworth said. “It’s kind of fun.”
Although Duckworth first started attending Alabama shortly after some members of the 1988 team had already graduated, she is still very familiar with the members of the team. Despite three decades separating the first championship team and Duckworth’s 2018 team, she notices similarities between the two groups.
“I think that this particular team has a great deal of love for The University of Alabama, for each other and they’re really proud to represent the A on their chest and that’s what that 88 team was all about,” Duckworth said. “So I think there are some major similarities.”
Not only does Alabama’s current unit share the same team pride as the members of the 1988 team, it also shares the same goal – bringing home a championship, whether it be an SEC, regional or national title. With that in mind, Alabama’s gymnasts are especially excited to meet the famed 1988 team this weekend.
“They went all the way and they did everything that this team strives to do,” sophomore Shea Mahoney said. “Being able to see them in all their glory days and it’s just really cool to hear what they have to say and to see that they did it. Our team wants to be able to follow in their footsteps and do the same thing.”
The No. 7 ranked Crimson Tide will continue its quest towards a championship against No. 9 Kentucky at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. Alabama is looking to build on a season-high 197.075 that it scored in a losing effort against Florida in Gainesville last week.