Friendship, family bonds NCAA co-champ women's coaches
posted on 01/29/2015

© Erin Long

By Jo-Ann Barnas - Special to USA Gymnastics

It was an unusual group photo. But then again, it wasn’t.

Two teams sharing the same podium, members of both with index fingers extended skyward – a nod to their status as dual Nos. 1.

That was the scene last April, after Florida and Oklahoma became the first co-champions in NCAA women’s gymnastics with identical scores of 198.175 in the Super Six.

But every time Sooners coach K.J. Kindler looks at the photo, she sees something else – as in, something more.

Check out the positions of the teams.

“Florida had won the year before and they were so gracious,” Kindler said. “They let us stand behind the banner, and they sat in front of it. We were elated to share in that. They kind of understood what the moment was all about for us."

As the defending NCAA champions entering the meet, the Gators most certainly did. Aware it was Oklahoma’s first national title ever in women’s gymnastics, Florida happily sat in front of the Sooners, colorful streamers at their feet.

Both teams had a difficult climb to the top in coming from behind to share the title. Alabama had the lead going into the final rotation, but had a fall on balance beam on its final routine of the event at the Birmingham (Ala.) Jefferson Convention Complex Arena.

“K.J. and I have a tremendous amount of mutual respect for each other,” Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn said. “We both grew up in Minnesota, and when I was assistant coach at Nebraska, she was at Iowa State. But I think we’re also similar in the sense that we’re both young moms with two children and the challenges that go with establishing and running a top program, and balancing a life with a young family." 

So how are the co-champs faring this year?

Nine months after the historical title tie, Florida opened this season with a setback: In the Gators’ opener at Ball State on Jan. 11, junior Bridget Sloan suffered a severe sprain to her right ankle. The injury happened as Sloan was on her final tumbling pass on floor exercise; she couldn’t finish the routine.

Earlier in the meet, Sloan – the 2009 world all-around champion and 2008 Olympian – scored a perfect 10.0 in the vault, and shared the uneven bars title with fellow junior Bridgette Caquatto at 9.95.

Losing a gymnast of Sloan’s caliber – it’s hopeful she’ll return later in the season – would be difficult for any coach to handle.

But as word of Sloan’s injury spread, Faehn said she received messages of support – phone calls, emails and texts – from coaching peers across the country.

No surprise that among the first well-wishers was Kindler and her staff.

“K.J. said she was sorry,” Faehn said. “I heard from her assistant, too. They sincerely feel for her (Sloan) and want her to recover quickly."

Faehn and Kindler must have had matching smiles last week when found themselves both tied for No. 1 in the country in the rankings, each holding a season average of 197.063 after the first two meets of the season.

But there’s a major shift in the rankings this week. Oklahoma held on to the top spot after posting the highest team total in the nation this season (197.850) in victories over Southeast Missouri State and Texas Women’s University on Friday (Jan. 23).

Florida, meanwhile, dropped to No. 3 behind OU and Louisana State University after losing to then-No. 7 Alabama 197.40 to 196.80 in front of a boisterous crowd of 13,778 on the same night in Tuscaloosa.

The Sooners were lead by a pair of perfect 10s in their victory posted by freshman Brenna Dowell on uneven bars and junior Haley Scaman on vault.

Faehn and Kindler are confident their teams will return to the Super Six this season. The NCAA championships are April 17-19 in Fort Worth, Texas.

But first they’ll duel each other in a regular-season meet March 6 when the Gators travel to the Lloyd Noble Center. Kindler said that excitement for the sport continues building at the school since the Sooners returned as co-NCAA champs last spring.

“What predominately stuck in my mind was the reaction we got when we got back to campus – just the notoriety they received,” Kindler said. “It was like, what we do really matters. And that’s what I want them to feel. In my pre-meet speech (at the start of this season), I said that this is not a continuation of last year. Last year’s over. Now we have to create a new story for ourselves. It may be different. It might be the same.”

And who knows? Maybe history will repeat itself.