Alabama Gymnastics Aims to Soar Back into Sport's Top Tier

Christopher Walsh

For those who have been around the University of Alabama gymnastics program during the past couple of years, the roses are already familiar.

Like the sport itself, they’re beautiful and graceful in appearance, with underlaying potential for danger and pain.

It’s the idea behind them that this team in particular is concerned with. The gymnastics season doesn’t begin until January, but there are already all sorts of rose-filled photos on social media, with the athletes holding one and/or standing in front of an elegant rose wall.

The reminder is both on a big-picture and daily level, with each regularly asking herself two questions:

“What’s been my thorn?” Or what’s held you back? What did you have to overcome.

“What’s your rose?” What’s the goal? What do you want to achieve?

“It just kind of developed organically, and that’s what I love about it,” said Crimson Tide coach Dana Duckworth, who especially uses it as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles and setbacks.

“All right. It’s a thorn. Are you going to let it stab you in the side, or are you going to climb on it like a ladder?”

At the heart of the “Water your rose” theme growing so much over the past few months was the 2019 team finish, and the Crimson Tide not qualifying for finals of the NCAA Championships.

With the new postseason format that gradually reduces the field from the Round of 16 to 12, and then eight and four, Alabama had the unenviable task of needing to beat either reigning national champion UCLA or Michigan on its home floor to advance.

The 10th-seeded Crimson Tide beat the Wolverines during their initial session of the Ann Arbor Regional, but both still advanced. The final went down to the last rotation, with Michigan hitting on balance beam to edge Alabama by .05 to move on to the NCAA semifinals.

For a program, that had appeared in the Super Six 33 times between 1983 and 2017, including each year from 2009-17, Alabama found itself in an unfamiliar place during the NCAA finals, home.

For the team, that’s its thorn.

It had to learn the hard way that getting to that top-four tier was going to take more.

That’s its rose.

To get there, preparation and attention to detail has been re-emphasized. It includes practice goals, holding each other accountable and for the athletes to take more ownership of the team.

“I want them to be in love with the process of trying to get there,” Duckworth said. “That’s the whole idea of the journey.”

With that in mind, the 2020 Crimson Tide begins with its team leadership, especially seniors Shea Mahoney, Maddie Desch and Wynter Childers, who all have very different styles and outlooks heading into their final seasons.

Mahoney headed the daily workouts during the offseason. While dealing with a knee injury Childers became the “hype girl.” Desch has a more personal, one-on-one style, but when she talks her teammates listen.

Others have spoken up as well, like sophomore Griffin James. She isn’t just looking for a better season personally, but has been pushing her teammates.

“I feel like the vibe is hunger,” Duckworth said. “They’re hungry for greatness and they’re doing a really good job in the gym.”

As for how the potential lineup looks, a lot won’t be determined until the spring. Although the roster looks like a pyramid with the three seniors, four juniors, five sophomore and six likely freshman, it’s not clear yet if it’ll have one person who will stand out on a regular basis.

There are four returning All-SEC gymnasts.

Junior Lexi Graber is the defending SEC balance beam champion, and was also second in the all-around at the league meet by posting a career-best 39.650.

Sophomore Shallon Olsen recently competed in her third World Championships and is hoping to be on Team Canada at the Olympic Games for a second time.

Mahoney won the uneven bars during Alabama’s initial session at the NCAA Regional, and was also a vault staple last season.

Desch scored a season-best 9.900 three times on floor exercise, including at the SEC Championships and the second round of the NCAA Regional.

In addition to Graber and Olsen, freshman Makarri Doggette is another candidate for the all-round. She’s just the second gymnast in history to win all four individual events and the all-around at the USA Junior Olympic national championships in the same year. She’s won nine Junior Olympic titles including the all-around twice.

Alabama also signed two athletes who will join the team in January, Luisa Blanco and Ella Burgess, and should make an immediate impact. 

Blanco is a a senior International Elite gymnast has twice competed at the U.S. National Championships. A member of the USA Junior Olympic National Team, she took gold on the balance beam and silver in the all-around at the 2017 J.O. National Championships. 

Burgess is the 2019 Region 8 balance beam champion and the 2019 Florida all-around, vault and balance beam champion.

Factor in some of the returning staples and the six slots on each event figure to fill up quickly. Among them is sophomore Emily Gaskins on beam. Junior Kylie Dickson is trying to earn a spot on vault. Childers has primarily completed on beam and bars. Junior Alonza Klopfer has a new floor routine. So does Desch.

In terms of the staff, there’s been only one alteration with new strength and conditioning coach David Albaranes, who himself is a former gymnast. Assistant coach Bill Lorenz is heading into his fifth season at Alabama, and Ryan Roberts his second. Former Crimson Tide gymnast Aja Sims is the volunteer coach.

There are two new significant NCAA rule changes, the first of which fans will barely notice. At the collegiate level the scoring is done on a 10.0 scale, with the start value of each routine (except vault) beginning at 9.5, with five .10 bonuses that had to be earned along the way for a perfect 10. It’s moved to a 9.4 base.

The second change is specific to floor exercise, as the bonusses can now all be acquired during just two high-level passes instead of three.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it works out,” Duckworth said.

The other thing of note about the 2020 season is Alabama has a brutal schedule in terms of top competition. The home opener is against reigning national champion Oklahoma on Jan. 17, and the Crimson Tide will subsequently take part in the Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, against Oklahoma, Georgia and Denver at the same site as the national championships.

Missouri will visit for the Power of Pink Meet on Feb. 7, plus there are the usual SEC meets against LSU, Florida and Georgia.

Consider them some mighty big thorns.

“Isn’t it funny that one of our meets in on Valentine’s Day?” Duckworth said. 

This is the fourth story in a "What's Next" series on Alabama's winter and spring sports that will appear on BamaCentral this week.

Monday: Alabama Rowing Beginning to find its Rhythm

Tuesday: Rebuilding Crimson Tide Baseball Beginning to Look More SEC Caliber

Wednesday: Coming Off 60-Win Season, Alabama Softball Wants Even More in 2020