COLUMBIA — Up and down. Up and down. Like clockwork.
The legs of junior Missouri gymnast Mackenzie McGill bounce off the practice facility's trampoline-like floor, fly up into a handstand, touch gently back down. They meet the ground — a ground whose springiness keeps the gymnasts healthy in the long haul — for just a moment before shooting back up again, creating a continuous cycle of handstands.
The Tigers will compete in their first ever SEC Championship meet Saturday in Little Rock, Ark.
The meet will be split into two sessions. Missouri will compete with Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky in the first session. Florida, Alabama, Georgia and LSU will compete in the second session.
The meet follows Missouri's 196.625-195.450 loss to Arizona last Saturday. This was the Tigers' season high score as a team.
Seven of the SEC's eight teams are ranked in GymInfo's Top 25, with Florida ranked No. 1 and Alabama No. 8 in the nation. Missouri is currently ranked No. 44.
Missouri tied for second with Iowa State at last year's Big 12 Conference championship.
A replay of the SEC Championship meet will air on ESPNU at 5 p.m. March 28 and again on ESPN at 7 p.m. on March 30.
Up, down. Up, down. Toes pointed the whole time. It's these little things that make a difference against top Southeastern Conference teams.
McGill says everyone at this level should nail their routines.
"Everyone's going to hit," McGill said.
The Missouri's women's gymnastics team has had its share of ups and downs in its first season in the SEC. While the conference's large crowds and elite competition welcomed Missouri "with open arms," as Tigers coach Rob Drass said, injuries set Missouri back, creating new roles for the gymnasts.
Missouri has an outside chance to qualify for an NCAA regional meet this season, and a few members of the team could earn individual bids, but Saturday's SEC championships could possibly be the Tigers' last meet of the season, so new roles are beginning to take shape for next season.
The lighting in the empty practice facility is dim, almost eerie. Sets of bars and rows of beams sit unoccupied. Pits of sponge-like material wait to break the gymnasts' falls. It looks like a playground overloaded with equipment.
But practice is serious.
McGill walks in, feet bare, SEC T-shirt proudly displayed. She talks about taking on a leadership role as a senior next year, hoping to promote a strong work ethic, starting right after this season ends.
"We're using the summer to grow as a team," McGill said.
They'll relax and bond over team dinners, maybe enjoy some go-karts and mini golf as they have in the past.
But then it's back to work.
"We'll start the drive for nationals," McGill said. Her toes naturally point as she sits, the gymnast in her coming out in subtle ways before she even begins to practice.
Up and down. Up and down.
McGill again performs her usual continuous handstand cycle, this time with her curled ponytail tied back with a bow, a temporary Tiger tattoo stuck by the corner of her eye. Her feet bounce off the harder mats used for meets.
It's March 8, the last home meet of the season. It's the last meet for Tori Howard and Sandra Ostad, seniors that McGill admires, that she treats as role models.
With the Tigers' tough competition this season, Howard notes that no matter what, it's the same four inches on the beam. McGill keeps this mindset, hoping to stay consistent.
And she'll bring this mindset with her as she steps into her own leadership role, as the Tigers continue embracing the challenge of the SEC.
Through all its ups and downs.