COLUMBIA — The most recent time the NCAA National Gymnastics Championship was held in Gainesville, Fla., it was a special year for two people who are now on the Missouri coaching staff.
It was in Gainesville in 1997 that current Missouri head coach Rob Drass was a member of the Nebraska coaching staff that advanced to its first Super Six. Also that year in Florida, current Missouri assistant coach Amy Smith was a senior on the UCLA team that won the national championship.
TEAMS: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana State, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Utah.
WHEN: First semifinal, 1 p.m. Thursday
Second semifinal, 7 p.m. Thursday
Team finals, 6 p.m. Friday
Individual event finals, 6 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: University of Florida's Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
NCAA gymnastics Web site
Now, after 13 years, the two are going back to Gainesville with the Missouri Tigers.
“It was quite an experience,” Smith said of her team’s 1997 victory. “I’m excited to go back and have another great experience with these guys.”
Drass, who also went to the national championships as a gymnast during his days at Penn State, said that his and Smith’s experience at past national championships should help the Tigers know what to prepare for. He also thinks it could be a good luck charm.
“We’re thinking Gainesville is a good place,” Drass said.
The Tigers are in a good place right now. More than a week after its NCAA regional championship victory at the Hearnes Center, Missouri is still all smiles. Drass said he was “as happy as could be.”
“It’s still exciting,” senior Sarah Shire said. “I’ve never been so excited for team practice. We’re a little bit more upbeat than we’ve normally been. This has never happened. We’ve never had team practice this week of the season. It’s still sinking in, but it’s so exciting.”
The rest of the team shares Shire’s upbeat attitude, and some of the gymnasts are still in a bit of disbelief.
“For the past four years, that’s (advancing to the national championship) what we’ve always been working for,” senior Becky Scholle said. “And I never really believed that it could happen. But now that it did, I think that all our hard work has finally paid off.”
For the Tigers, advancing to the national championship has been a goal all year long. They have had Gainesville fliers in their locker room since the preseason. Shire admitted, though, that winning an NCAA regional wasn’t something the team expected.
“For me to say, realistically, I thought we were going to win the regional, back in August, that’s not true,” Shire said. “I really didn’t think that, and I was shocked.”
Missouri isn’t the only one surprised by its achievement. The team said that opinions of the Tigers are going to change heading into the national championship.
“I’m sure other people are looking at us a little differently than they had before,” freshman Tori Howard said. “More of a threat.”
Drass confirmed that Missouri’s expectations for nationals have risen with the regional win.
The Tigers left for Florida on Tuesday. They practice on Wednesday and start competing on Thursday night. The other teams to advance to Gainesville are Oklahoma, Louisiana State, Alabama, Nebraska, Oregon State, UCLA, Arkansas, Florida, Utah, Stanford and Michigan.
Florida could enjoy the same type of home-gym advantage Missouri did Saturday.
While Drass made it clear that this will be a business trip, some gymnasts are thinking about some of the fun they could be having this week in the Sunshine State, with a trip to Disney World as a specific item on their wish list.
“When we win the national championship, I’m sure we’ll find a way to get to Disney World,” Drass said with a smile. “I mean everyone goes to Disney World, right, when you win?”