Gymnastics hits the road to renew rivalry rich with tradition

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Gymnastics hits the road to renew rivalry rich with tradition

CW/ Hannah Saad

CW/ Hannah Saad

CW/ Hannah Saad

CW/ Hannah Saad

James Ogletree, Sports Writer

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The parallels abound between Alabama women’s gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth and Georgia coach Courtney Kupets Carter. Both are coaching at their alma maters, both are NCAA individual and team national champions, both have represented the United States in international competition and both are mothers and wives piloting premier programs.

On Friday night, their teams will meet in Athens, Georgia, marking the latest installment of one of the most storied rivalries in NCAA women’s gymnastics history.

For over 30 years, former coach Sarah Patterson’s Crimson Tide and Suzanne Yoculan’s Gym Dogs were frequently ranked among the top teams in the country. They combined for 16 national championships and 24 SEC titles from 1986 to 2014.

During that time, the two not only paved the way for this rivalry, but for greater awareness of all of women’s gymnastics.

“These two programs helped put women’s gymnastics on the map and give it the opportunity to launch into… live television, streaming, coverage by [media],” Duckworth said. “For two women like us to be able to wear many hats and carry on that legacy, I know I’m very proud of the opportunity every day, and I never take it for granted.”

The rivalry may have lost a bit of its luster, but both teams remain perennial title contenders. Through two meets, Georgia ranks 10th nationwide with an average score of 195.950 out of 200, while Alabama ranks 17th at 195.463.

The Crimson Tide began its season with two quad meets at home, so Friday at Georgia will be the team’s first dual meet, conference meet and road meet of the year.

How freshmen adjust to less cozy arenas and increased stakes is a question every team must answer. And, it’s especially important for Alabama, as nearly a quarter of the team’s individual starts (11 of 48) have been by freshmen.

“I think what I see with the freshmen and some of our other underclassmen is they love to compete,” Duckworth said. “They want to showcase this hard work on the bright lights, the big scene. I want to recruit people who want the ball with one second left, whether they succeed or not. … I’ve seen that, especially in Emily [Gaskins] and Shallon [Olsen], who’ve had the most competitive experience as freshmen so far.”

Those two account for ten of the 11 starts; so far, each has competed in the vault, uneven bars and balance beam. Olsen has led and co-led the team in the vault at its first two meets, and Gaskins has done the same on the bars.

They also have extensive experience in big-time competition – Gaskins spent three years on the U.S. Women’s National Team, and Olsen represented Canada in the 2016 Olympics.

The team’s seven newcomers – six freshmen and one transfer – have quickly assimilated. Duckworth has remarked several times at the closeness and camaraderie among the gymnasts, and that’s without any road trips, which can be a key bonding opportunity.

“There are so many funny memories,” senior Angelina Giancroce said. “I can’t even tell you how many bloopers our videographer gets while we’re traveling, people tripping off the airplane or doing something funny.

“On the way to the meet, we have all these really cool chants and things that we sing. Those are always really fun because it’s always been passed down from the seniors doing it each year. When it finally comes to your time to lead these cheers you’re like, ‘Hopefully I even remember the words from last year because I was just kind of following along.’”

During the hectic quad meets, Duckworth was impressed by the gymnasts’ ability to block out everything except their teammate who was competing. Friday’s meet will have fewer distractions, but a less friendly crowd and more eyes on each gymnast at once, as only one will perform at a time.

“When we’re in environments where maybe we’re not as familiar, you lean on the person right next to you,” Giancroce said. “We’re having a great time this season, and I think that’s something that we’ve really emphasized this year: having fun. Because when we have fun and you go out there and do gymnastics, that’s when your best work comes out.”