The scores may be higher, the stakes will be higher and even the stage itself will be higher on Saturday when the No. 9 Alabama gymnastics competes against Auburn for the second time in eight days.
The Crimson Tide and Tigers are competing in Birmingham in the fifth annual Elevate the Stage meet. Each of the four events will take place on top of a raised podium, which causes the mats to have more bounce and take less of a toll on the gymnasts’ bodies.
Some Alabama gymnasts have extensive experience competing on podium, while others will have to use a 20-minute practice period on Friday to acclimate to the new surface. Familiarity with that setup is important because they’ll see it again at the SEC meet on March 23 and potentially at the NCAA Championships nearly a month later.
Being the center of attention at those events can obviously be more unnerving, so the coaches try to prepare the gymnasts by putting them in as many similarly challenging situations as possible.
“It’s wonderful that they are the only one up on that pedestal being able to perform at the highest level,” coach Dana Duckworth said. “[It’s] a great environment to prepare them to really clear the mechanism and know how to zone in and be laser-focused on what they need to do.”
Sophomore Kylie Dickson and freshman Emily Gaskins, who both have plenty of experience competing on podium, said the physical adjustments in their routines are minor. Gaskins added that if something does change, it’s usually less force needed to execute her tumbling pass on the softer surface.
“If you had so much energy and you were like flying out, then you’d know ‘Okay, I don’t have to work quite as hard on this, so let me just calm down and just go a little slower into it and wait to feel the bounce of the floor more,’” Gaskins said.
Calming down and going a little slower are lessons Gaskins has learned on a couple occasions this year, specifically on the balance beam. She said she feeds off her team and the crowd’s energy, but has gotten too aggressive during her routine.
The team uses a “fire-water” code system so gymnasts can tell their teammates how much enthusiasm they want them to provide. Duckworth said a gymnast’s optimal conditions can differ from event to event; Dickson added it may even differ within a routine.
“It’s kind of interchangeable,” Dickson said. “Some people like water for their first pass so they can hear the music and get going, and then after that it’s like full scream.”
Some gymnasts are still trying to figure out what works best for them. Anyone who watched Dickson pump up the crowd during Alabama’s season-high 49.500 on the floor on Friday has no doubt. She doesn’t, either.
“I love everyone screaming, I love the loud cheering. For me, the louder the better,” Dickson said. “It just gets me going, like ‘Okay, I’m doing this for them.’ … I’m a big hype girl.”
In other sports, competing against Auburn for the second straight week would be reason to celebrate louder or take a loss harder, but in gymnastics, continued improvement means more than beating any particular opponent.
“Right before you go out you might have that little extra fire, maybe,” Gaskins said. “But in the gym they’re just another gymnastics team. We shouldn’t change who we are depending on who we compete against.”