Alabama gymnastics faces Auburn in annual Elevate the Stage meet


Stephen Alvarez

Alabama will face Auburn in Huntsville, Alabama for the annual Elevate the Stage meet.

Ben Stansell

Smiling is one of Kiana Winston’s favorite things. A smile, to Winston, is powerful.

“A smile is something that you can always carry with you,” Winston said. “It can brighten up a room if you’re smiling and can change everyone’s attitude.”

Winston herself possesses a broad, bright smile that she flashes frequently.

That grin will almost certainly be on display Friday night, when Winston gets to meet kids from Camp Smile-A-Mile at the Crimson Tide’s Elevate the Stage meet in Huntsville, Alabama.

For the past three years, Alabama and Auburn have competed against each other in a neutral site in the Elevate the Stage meet. At each meet, a portion of the proceeds of ticket and merchandise sales go to Camp Smile-A-Mile and the Ronald McDonald House. Alabama sponsors Camp Smile-A-Mile, Auburn promotes the Ronald McDonald House.

Camp Smile-A-Mile is a non-profit organization headquartered in Birmingham that provides year-long programming for children who have had or have cancer in Alabama at no cost.

Alabama has had a longstanding connection with Camp Smile-A-Mile dating back to 2002 when then assistant head coach David Patterson, husband of former head coach Sarah Patterson, undertook a 140-mile bike trek to raise money for the camp. David was a cancer survivor himself and Camp Smile-A-Mile’s cause resonated with him.

Since David’s first “Ride of Love,” the bond between Alabama gymnastics and Camp Smile-A-Mile has remained strong.

Winston has gotten to meet and interact with kids from Camp Smile-A-Mile for the past three years at Elevate the Stage, which is one reason why it is among her favorite meets each season.

“Elevate is another one of my favorite meets besides alumni and the pink meet because we get to compete for something more than ourselves” Winston said. “. . . just representing those children that, they didn’t get to choose their battle and I kind of do get to choose my battle and so just fighting for them is what I’m most excited about.”

It is no surprise what Winston enjoys most about the experience.

“I like to see their [the kids] smiles,” Winston said.

Although Elevate the Stage is a special meet because of its philanthropic underpinnings, it also provides Alabama with a unique opportunity: the chance to compete on a podium before post-season play.

Competing on podium in gymnastics essentially means that gymnasts compete on apparatuses that are raised from floor level, usually a few feet off the ground.

The apparatuses being elevated off of the ground is not the only critical difference between a regular competition floor and a podium. On podium, gymnasts experience an added level of bounce.

“It’s bouncy,” Nickie Guerrero said. “It’s nice and bouncy. It doesn’t hurt as bad.”

The Crimson Tide gymnasts enjoy the extra springiness of podium, but realize that it is a deviation from competing on a regular floor.

“Even though its bouncy, it’s an adjustment,” Guerrero said. “You have to really control your landings and think about them a little bit more. Getting that experience so early is really good for us.”

Since the only meets hosted on podium are typically post-season meets, including the SEC Conference Championships and the NCAA Championships, competing on podium a little over two weeks before the post-season starts gives Alabama a leg up, according to coach Dana Duckworth.

“I think it’s such an advantage for our student athletes on both teams because we get to compete on podium,” Duckworth said. “which is what we’ll see post-season at SECs and the National Championship. I think that it showcases the athletes. I love that our freshman, who some have never competed on the podium before, will get that real life experience.”

This Friday will mark the first time that Elevate the Stage will take place outside the confines of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Duckworth views the location change for this year’s meet as a chance to spread gymnastics to other areas in the state of Alabama.

“It’s just an awesome opportunity in the state of Alabama, two amazing teams with a very healthy, vivacious rivalry, being able to battle it out,” Duckworth said. “I think it’s a beautiful thing for the youth part of women’s gymnastics in our state because these little girls aspire to want to be our athletes.”

Alabama is currently riding a three meet winning streak heading into Elevate the Stage. The Crimson Tide is looking to build on a season high 197.525 that it posted in a win against North Carolina last week.