GAINESVILLE, Fla., — After winning the South Central Regional two weeks ago, the Missouri gymnastics team earned a long-awaited ticket to the big dance of gymnastics meets — the NCAA Gymnastics Championships.
Wearing eye-popping black and yellow leotards, the team began the meet on the floor exercise. Even with a few uncharacteristic landings, the Tigers opened with a solid 48.925. A few missteps could have been attributed to different equipment, which was placed on a podium, altering the feel of an event. The floor can seem bouncier, the beam perhaps a bit more wobbly. Most of all, performing with an additional three feet below you can make you feel even more alone on an event in the middle of a giant arena.
On vault, perhaps the Tigers' strongest event all season, Missouri scored a strong 49.2. Senior Danielle Guider landed short and hurt her right ankle, leaving her in a boot for the rest of the meet. But halfway through the meet, the Tigers were in third place, ahead of powerhouse Florida and closing in on Stanford.
The Tigers were at nationals and making a name for themselves. They were no longer the team that only has individual qualifiers, the team that is close but not quite close enough. Led by senior Sarah Shire, the Tigers were hanging with some of the most established teams in the gymnastics world.
With Guider out for the meet and two events remaining, Missouri put in freshman Sandra Ostad on its next event, the uneven parallel bars. Booming cheers from the crowd added to the Tigers' energy level and made for an intense second half. The top three teams would advance to Friday night's Super Six finals to crown a national champion. Imagine if Missouri made it to the Super Six. Imagine a basketball team which had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament making it to the Final Four.
The Tigers made it through bars with a 49.025 with a strong performance from Ostad. Imagine not being in the lineup all year and in the biggest meet of the season turning in a successful routine.
Now, the Tigers are in striking distance of the final mile-marker in the life a sports program. It takes many teams years to qualify for nationals and years to qualify for the Super Six and the Tigers are about to do both within three weeks.
So here comes the final rotation. Stanford has already finished the meet with a 196.3. The Missouri Tigers need a 49.15 on beam to tie, something the Tigers have done a number of times this season.
But, things happen when the pressure is on. Beam had been a tough event for most of the teams Thursday evening. Arkansas counted two falls and Michigan counted one. And scores were tight. A slight bobble here and there, deductions. A step, a bent leg ... deductions.
So here they are. In the meet of their lives. They’ve already done more than any other Missouri gymnastics team. Now, the next monumental obstacle for the program is within reach.
Imagine balancing on 4-inch wide beam in the final rotation of the biggest competition of your life. The pressure makes your arms and legs heavy, but the noise from the screaming fans seems to subside until the only thing you hear is your breath. You're alone on a balance beam with yourself. You’ve done it a thousand times, but none of that matters. The only thing that matters is the next minute and a half. A minute and a half that will finish a season, perhaps a career. Nervous doesn’t begin to describe it.
The Missouri Tigers didn’t make it to the Super Six finals. They had to count two falls on beam and they finished the meet with a 194.6 for 12th place. But, this final beam rotation doesn’t define their record breaking-season. The Missouri gymnastics team made a step toward greatness Thursday night. It’s heartbreaking and disappointing and sad and hard to take, but the Tigers got there. They qualified to a meet that was always slightly out of reach in previous seasons.
Next year's team will know what its like to compete at nationals and know the execution that is required under pressure and know better how make the final step toward greatness.