One year later, Oklahoma is on the verge of winning a national championship.
The Sooners had to go through a heartbreaking shutdown, a dismaying pandemic and months and months of COVID testing and other mind-numbing protocols — but they made it.
Ranked co-No. 1 in the nation with Florida, seeded No. 2 behind the Gators and widely considered among the small group of teams that could win another gymnastics title, the Sooners are in Fort Worth for two days of competition that will determine this year’s top team, but has already determined so much more.
“I mean, what happened in 2020,” said OU coach K.J. Kindler, “was tragic in many ways.”
Kindler said her mind first goes to her seniors that didn’t get a chance last year to defend their 2019 national championship — seniors like Maggie Nichols, one of the most decorated athletes in NCAA history who’s career was cut short right at its zenith.
“It was really kind of the rug taken right out from under us in 2020,” Kindler said.
Nichols is an OU assistant coach now, so a national title — that would be Oklahoma's fifth — would be a sweet way to start her post-athlete career.
“She never had that finish,” Kindler said. “I feel like she almost feels like this is her finish.”
When the campus was shut down, the athletes went home and had to train on their own. Some probably got creative. Some probably battled depression. All managed to somehow cope.
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“We started the season,” Kindler said, “and the questions, you can imagine: Are we going to have a season? How are we going to have a season? What does it look like? Who are we competing against? What's our schedule like?
“Our schedule came out a week or two before we actually started. And so, those questions were on in the front of their mind the entire preseason because no one could really conceptualize how it was going to work.”
Kindler said her gymnasts often watched football in the fall, and every week, a list of canceled football games was publicized — so there was confusion. But week after week, meet after meet, the Sooners never had an event cancelled. Kindler still holds her breath on testing days.
“As we started competing,” Kindler said, “I felt like their, you know, their belief that this was going to happen really started to grow. It didn't start growing in August, when that's normally when you're pushing for a championship and all that work is done then.
“There was that uncertainty of what you were working toward, you know, kind of like last year: look what we worked for, and it didn't happen.”
Kindler said there is no sense that this year’s team is the defending national champion. Although OU won it all the last time the NCAA handed out a big trophy, these Sooners are not defending anything.
“I think that's not probably weighing heavily on our shoulders if that's your question,” she said. “It's so far in the past that I don't even know that that's their mindset at all.
“ … It's been almost a lifetime — you know, 2019 — since we had that feeling. But, hopefully we're training like we're No. 2, not No. 1.”
To that end, Kindler said Michigan is “a very strong team and probably has that underdog mentality,” while LSU “always (shows) up at the end at their very best” and Utah is a team that “has grown as a team over the course of the season.”
But the Gators are considered favorites for a reason.
“I think that Florida clearly has established themselves as the top seed in this tournament,” Kindler said, “and they are always good. Their roster is phenomenal from top to bottom.”
Eight teams compete in two semifinal brackets Friday night at Dickies Arena (OU is paired with LSU, Utah and Alabama), and the top two teams from each bracket advance to Saturday’s Four on the Floor. Friday’s semifinals will be carried live on ESPN2 starting at 5 p.m., and the championship meet airs Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ABC.
However the final standings shake out on Saturday, Kindler thinks all the teams in Fort Worth have already overcome the biggest obstacle of all: 2020 itself.
“They've already won just by making it this far, with all the things that we've dealt with,” Kindler said. “So, this feels like a win already. And now we're going in and we get that opportunity. ... So the opportunity is key.
“We made it this far, and we're pretty proud of that.”