Alabama Gymnastics Wins Fourth National Title



On the way to winning its fourth NCAA Championship, Alabama was a study in contrast. In the locker room, which the coaches and gymnasts had turned into a beach getaway, complete with sand, umbrellas, floats and beach music, the Tide was laid back and laughing. Out in the arena, moving ever closer to the title, they were cool, calm and collected.

"We have always done our best when we are loose and laughing," All-American Kristin Sterner said. "So the coaches made sure that while we were in the locker room, we didn't get tense or uptight."

On the night of the Super Six, head coach Sarah Patterson even went so far as to pull out the dress she wore to the championships the first time Alabama won at home, in 1991, a red and white striped, strapless sequined number.

"At first they were surprised, and then they started laughing pretty hard," Patterson said. "I think they really enjoyed seeing that, especially since it's pretty far removed from the kinds of things I wear today."

Sarah and David Patterson, coaching at their 20th NCAA Championship, knew that staying loose would give their team an edge in a tight competition. The night of the NCAA Super Six, none of the six teams had a fall. It would be the second highest scoring night in championship history.

It didn't seem to matter though, the higher the other teams turned up the heat, the cooler Alabama gymnasts got.

For two nights in a row, Alabama started the night on the floor exercise, which means that for two nights in a row, Alabama's championship hopes came down to six routines on the balance beam, often the most daunting event of the four, especially when the pressure is on.

And on the final night, just to add more drama to the evening, Alabama was on the balance beam during the last rotation while second place Georgia was on the floor exercise. Not only would Alabama have to hit their routines, but they would also have to hold Georgia off.

Each routine grew in importance as both teams moved through the rotation. Alabama hit routine after routine until Sterner came up in the number five spot. A hit routine from Sterner and the championship belonged to Alabama; a miss would open the door for Georgia.

Sterner put together a rock solid routine and finished it off by nailing her landing. The title belonged once again to the Tide. But the team didn't know that, not for sure, so for them, there was one more routine to go, this time from Andreé Pickens, the Tide's all-everything senior.

"I started to cry when Kristin landed her routine," Pickens said. "Jeana (Rice) came over to me and told me that it was ok, I could do it, I could do it one more time. That whole routine was in slow motion. It wasn't rushed and I wasn't nervous, I was happy and I was confident."

She nailed her routine. And when she threw her arms in the air after her dismount, the Coleman Coliseum crowd knew what had happened. They knew the Bama team had again, as the Tide fight song says, "Writ her name in crimson flame..." and brought a fourth national title to Tuscaloosa. They roared their approval, stomping, clapping and screaming, much like the pandemonium that had broken out on the floor amongst the Tide athletes, coaches and staff.

It had been a remarkable run. Since counting a fall on the last event of the SEC Championships, Alabama had gone a perfect 72 for 72 during their championship march. Pickens, senior Natalie Barrington, Sterner, sophomore Jeana Rice and freshmen Alexis Brion and Shannon Hrozek earned 14 All-American honors between them, the most of any team at the championship. On Saturday, an exhausted Pickens, who went 12 routines in three days, had enough energy left to win the NCAA Uneven Bars title to go with the American Award she'd picked up earlier in the day which denotes the nation's top senior.

There would be more moments of celebration in the days and weeks that followed. Alabama received their championship rings in front of 83,000-plus fans at the halftime of the Alabama-Southern Mississippi football game. They were also honored at the Homecoming parade and the pep rally/bonfire the night before.

But perhaps the best moment came just after the team received the trophy from Alabama Athletics Director Mal Moore, when everyone was laughing and hugging. It was Pickens, who had come back from a torn Achilles that ended her junior season just days before the 2001 NCAA Championship, who put it best.

Standing in the middle of her teammates tightly clutching the Tide's golden prize to her chest she said, "This is why I came back. This is why I worked so hard for so many months to get back - to be able to share this moment, this feeling with these girls and this crowd.

"This," she said again, sweeping her eyes over the mob scene in Coleman Coliseum, "is what we wanted."