Chomping at the bit
posted on 02/05/2014

© Erin Long

By Scott Bregman

There were times during her freshman campaign that Bridget Sloan didn't know if she would be able to make it through her floor routine. A veteran of years of elite gymnastics, whose successes include an Olympic silver medal and an all-around World title, Sloan suddenly found herself faced with an unexpected challenge.

"At some meets where I didn't know if I'd be able to do a floor routine because I was so tired Acaa not from actually doing gymnastics Acaa but from cheering and jumping and dancing," Sloan admitted. "Elite (gymnastics) is very focused and you're in your own little world. But in college, I always tell people we put on a great show and that's really what we did. And it's exhausting."

"She has the overall package because she has the personality that is so fun and so contagious," said Florida Head Coach Rhonda Faehn, a 1988 Olympic team alternate. "She knows when she has to be serious, but she knows when she can relax a little bit."

Sloan's "great show" took her all the way from Gainesville, Fla., to Los Angeles, host of the 2013 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles. There, Sloan and her Gator teammates made history: they became just the fifth school in women's collegiate gymnastics to win the team title. (The University of Utah, University of Georgia, UCLA and University of Alabama are the others.) Sloan also became the first female gymnast to win the U.S., World and NCAA all-around titles.

But, the road to the team championship wasn't an easy one.

Sloan's quest for a second Olympic team ended during warm-ups at the U.S. Olympic Trials - Gymnastics in San Jose, Calif., when she injured her elbow on the uneven bars.

"I didn't have the best year in 2012. I got hurt, and I was at a little bit of a low point. College really brought me back up, and it was kind of uplifting to me," Sloan reflected. "College made me realize how fun gymnastics was and how much I truly did love the sport.

Even for an athlete of Sloan's caliber, the transition to collegiate gymnastics can be difficult.

First, Sloan's elite gymnastics career typically included only three or four competitions a year. She not only had to adjust to the demands of a grueling 14-week competition schedule, but also to life as a full-time college student.

"It was definitely a learning experience for me, simply coming off of an elite career and kind of jumping into college," said Sloan. "I went from basically training all the time and not doing any school work, to doing school work all the time on top of training."

Faehn said that many times elite gymnasts struggle with the transition to collegiate gymnastics due to a greater emphasis placed on perfect execution, in addition to the expanded competition schedule.

"The little things are so important, such as a wobble on beam or a step out of bounds on floor," Faehn explained.

To accommodate the different rules, Sloan's routines were reworked, much to her chagrin. "At first, she, of course, wasn't happy with doing easier gymnastics," Faehn admitted, "but, then, she did realize that 14 competitions a year takes a huge toll on the body."

Sloan was a fast learner. She earned a 39.550 in the all-around in her fifth collegiate meet and went on to record eight all-around totals of 39.600 or better to close her season. She posted a 39.750 during the 2013 NCAA national team finals, a total which includes three near-perfect 9.950 scores.

Though Sloan was near perfect, the Gators were not.

© Erin Long

The Gators began on the balance beam where two of their six competitors fell. Collegiate rules allow six competitors on each event with the top five scores counting, which meant the Gators could drop one of the missed routines but still had to count a 9.325. Their 48.875 total was far below the 49.475 they posted a day earlier in the preliminary round.

"She has such experience that after beam, she was the one to say, 'Hey, you guys, we've still got this. We're good,'" Faehn remembered.

But, the Gators opened their next event, the floor exercise, with a fall from their first competitor.

"My stomach dropped out of my body, " said Faehn. "But I could just see in Bridget's face that she was just going to nail a routine."

And nail a routine, she did. Second in the lineup, Sloan delivered a clutch 9.950.

"She just kind of turned it around for everybody," Faehn said. "That was exactly what they needed; somebody who was not going to be afraid to go all out."

The Gators rolled from that moment on, scoring no lower than 9.825 on any of their remaining 16 routines. Florida came from behind, winning the NCAA title despite counting a mistake on the balance beam.

"Winning the team title, hands down, was one of the best moments of my life," said Sloan, whose World all-around title in 2009 makes her just one of seven U.S. women ever to take the global title. "It just hits you hard. It hit me really hard last year that not only did I win the all-around, not only did the team win for ourselves, but we also won it for the University of Florida."

In addition to the team and all-around titles, Sloan also won the balance beam title at the 2013 NCAA nationals and received the Honda Award for her success. She is an eight-time All-American and was named to the 2013 All-Southeastern Conference First Team.

Yet, Sloan and Faehn have put last year's success behind them, choosing to focus on the 2014 season with fresh eyes.

"We're taking it one meet at a time," Faehn said. "Each year is a new year. Each team is a new team. What I try to do is positively look at it like, 'What is going to be great about this team?'"

There's a lot that's great about Faehn's team, which is a who's who of former national team members. The Gators roster, in addition to Sloan, includes Bridgette Caquatto, 2011 Pan American Games all-around champion; Mackenzie Caquatto, 2010 World team silver medalist; Kytra Hunter, 2009-10 World Championships team alternate; and Alaina Johnson, who competed at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Acaa Gymnastics.

Sloan, who said she hopes to be "the next Erin Andrews," is upbeat about the team's chances of defending their title at the NCAA Championships, April 18-20, in Birmingham, Ala., despite losing all-around competitors Ashanee Dickerson and Marissa King to graduation last year.

"I think [trying to defend the NCAA title] puts a good amount of pressure on all of us, equally, to just represent our school with class and that attitude of 'We're Gators, and we fight for everything,' like we do for all of our sports here," Sloan said.