Settling Down: gymnasts find their places in rotation

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Settling Down: gymnasts find their places in rotation

CW/ Hannah Saad

CW/ Hannah Saad

CW/ Hannah Saad

CW/ Hannah Saad

James Ogletree, Sports Writer

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As Alabama gymnastics presses deeper into its schedule, the early-season shuffling of lineups has mostly stopped, and gymnasts are more assured of when they will and will not be competing.

“I think we’ll be about 85 percent set by the time we get to the next couple weeks,” coach Dana Duckworth said on Jan. 21. “But because of bodies, and it’s a long season, you never know, someone could wake up sick. Those things happen. Someone could tweak something, and you want to rest them.”

Nearly all the Crimson Tide’s lineup changes over the last three meets have simply been due to injury or illness, so Duckworth and her assistants may have settled on an arrangement they’re comfortable with.

The vault lineup has had the fewest changes. It has remained identical for all five meets except against LSU when sophomore Lexi Graber injured her toe in warmups, and last week at Missouri when senior Abby Armbrecht had a stomach bug, and the team only used five vaulters.

Those two, along with freshmen Emily Gaskins and Shallon Olsen, junior Shea Mahoney and senior Ari Guerra, comprise a reliable vault lineup that ranks fifth in the NCAA.

“It’s really how this team is, and I think every team has different levels of depth,” Duckworth said. “And there are years we have different levels of depth, and you want to be deep with 9.9-or-better scoring potential. … You’re always striving to figure out what are the best six that put the team in the most optimal position to be able to be successful and battle.”

Only Olsen has broken the 9.9 barrier on vault, doing so in back-to-back meets, but all six starters average 9.8 or better.

Omitting injuries and illnesses, the floor lineups have appeared to be the same for four straight meets, the bars lineups for three straight and the beam lineups for two straight.

Even still, the process of evaluating, tweaking and arranging lineups is constantly ongoing. Duckworth and her assistants must decide how much to weigh performances in casual and intense practice situations and, of course, in official competition.

Freshman Jensie Givens earned a spot in the balance beam lineup for the season’s first meet but fell off the beam and has yet to return to the starting six. She has, however, competed on bars in three of five meets.

“When you’re given that opportunity, you’ve got to grab it and you’ve got to do your job,” Duckworth said. “When you don’t do that job and someone else beats you out, it only makes the strength of the team better, and it also makes it very clear to that person, ‘What do I have to do to be able to solidify my spot in the lineup?’”

Having more clarity and transparency about the lineups was one of the coaches’ primary priorities entering the season. The process they use to decide which six will compete in each event hasn’t changed, but their candor with the gymnasts has.

Leaderboards for all four events sit in the practice gym, so gymnasts can constantly monitor how they stack up. Daily practice plans also feature the projected lineups for the upcoming meet, which Duckworth said reminds the top six and those outside the bubble that all spots must be earned.

The coaches usually decide which six will compete in each event in time for an intra-squad meet the day before each actual meet. Intra-squads and pressure sets, in which the gym is quiet and everyone watches the one gymnast competing, show the coaches how each gymnast responds to a more intimidating situation.

“I think it just boils down to who’s confident, who can hit under pressure, who wants to be the last one up when the scores are tight,” sophomore Kylie Dickson said.

Once the day of the meet arrives, Duckworth still has to decide the order in which the gymnasts will compete, factoring in each one’s health, the magnitude of the meet and past success in certain slots.

Sophomore Alonza Klopfer had never been the first off before this year, but Duckworth put her in the leadoff spot on the beam in the season’s second meet. She’s done the same in the subsequent three meets and owns the team’s best beam average.

“I love doing it,” Klopfer said. “It doesn’t make me as nervous, just getting up and doing my thing. I have good adrenaline, and it keeps me calm when I see my other teammates do good after me. It’s easier for me to just get up and go because I don’t think as much. When I think less, I do better.”

Klopfer’s case of keeping the same spot is rare. Most of the other gymnasts have been moved around several times – perhaps for a specific purpose, perhaps just to spice things up and satisfy Duckworth’s curiosity.

Dickson has competed second, third and fifth this year on bars. After she scored a season-low 9.5 against LSU from the fifth spot, Duckworth thought she might’ve put too much pressure on herself from being later in the lineup.

Dickson improved to a 9.8 from the second spot against Missouri the next week, but also did well late in intra-squad lineups. The lesson from her experiment, Duckworth said, was that she can put Dickson anywhere.

The gymnasts’ personalities and affinity for the bright lights matter, too. Duckworth has said several times that she wants to put athletes who “want the ball with one second left” later in lineups, especially in meets that are expected to be close.

As the team prepares for a second straight road meet Friday at Arkansas, the coaches are still pondering additional changes and carefully considering how each will affect the team’s chemistry and momentum.

“This week if Wynter [Childers] can go, which I don’t know if she will be able to, but if she can, then I’m thinking about leading off with Wynter [Childers] and putting Ari [Guerra] a little deeper, because I want those first two kids to stick,” Duckworth said. “Ari’s sticking potential is hot, and Shea’s bar routine is too good to go up front. I wish I could tell you it doesn’t matter where you put them, that it doesn’t affect the score, but I feel sometimes you just see that.”

Some of the gymnasts might perform better in one spot than another, but they don’t have a preference for where they fall in the order.

“Just being in the lineup, I’m very grateful for that,” Dickson said. “Whether I’m second, whether I’m fifth, whether I’m first, just being in the lineup to help out my team is good enough for me.”