Alabama Gymnastics Wins Second National Title
Dec. 14, 2012
In 1991, Sarah Patterson finally had the championships right where she wanted them: in Coleman Coliseum. Alabama had already gained national prominence, winning its first title in 1988. In 1990, the team brought home its second Southeastern Conference title and placed second to Utah at the national championships. The 1991 team boasted a contingent that included five All-Americans and the 1990 NCAA all-around champion. If the gymnasts did their jobs, there was no doubt in Pattersons' mind they would compete in front of the home crowd that final Friday of competition.
"I remember being told that you build a crowd by winning a national championship, but you could also do it by hosting a championship," Patterson said.
The first step toward building the fan base was accomplished with the 1988 NCAA title, which spurred increased interest in the program.
The Tide was young in 1991, with six underclassmen, including four freshmen. The two seniors, Kim Masters and Tina Rinker, sought to weave the 11 girls together to form a squad reminiscent of the 1988 championship they were members of as freshmen.
"I remember feeling that the team had so much talent that we should be able to win the national championship if we could become unified and get into the flow," Rinker reminisced.
Alabama had the opportunity to shine at home, but the team was not fulfilling expectations in the pre-season. "I can remember in December thinking that we were hosting the championships and that we might not even be there," Patterson said.
Pre-season practices were not characteristic of a team that should be in contention for a gold, and Patterson predicted a nightmarish outcome if the team did not shape up.
"One day, Sarah sat us down and we got a good lecture," Kara Stilp recalled. "I will never forget it. She told us that we were going to be really embarrassed when we hosted nationals, and we would not be competing in it. We agreed that we all needed to get in gear."
That proved to be a turning point for the gymnasts. Once its first competition rolled around, the Tide was ready to go. If pre-season was tough, the competition season was just as demanding.
The Tide defeated Auburn in the 1991 season opener even though they had to count three falls on balance beam, an event on which the program had built its reputation. In its home opener against Penn State, the team tumbled to three more falls from the 4-inch wide apparatus. Fortunately, they still came away with a win.
To Patterson, these mistakes were unacceptable for a championship-caliber team. Beam intra-squads came frequently, and the team's self-assurance rose. The team members began to refer to themselves as the "Beam Team."
"We had so much confidence because Sarah made us do so many intra-squads," Sheryl Dundas said. "We could do routines in our sleep if we had to."
The Tide traveled to Lexington, Ky., for the Southeastern Conference Championships. Forced to count two falls on the final event, vault, the SEC title slipped from Alabama's hands by .05. The disappointment and frustration made the Tide even more determined to earn the national crown.
"Good teams aren't going to let defeats defeat them overall," Katherine Kelleher told reporters at the time. "They use it to their advantage. That's what we are going to do." "I've always said that in this conference, you can be third at the conference championship and win the national championship," Patterson explained. "1991 was definitely indicative of that scenario."
At the regional championships at Auburn, the Tide turned in one of its best performances of the season. The team entered the NCAAs as the No. 1 seed.
The Tide drew a favorable rotation at the NCAA Championships, starting on the vault, finishing on the floor exercise. After charging through the first two events, the "Beam Team" was put to its final test, hitting all six routines, passing the exam with flying colors. The Tide was the only team without a fall on the balance beam at nationals.
Before the team rotated to floor, Patterson offered only one piece of advice to her charges: "I just told the kids to land on their feet and stay in bounds."
The floor music reverberated through the Coliseum and each tumbling pass was met with louder and louder cheers and at the end of six routines the Crimson Tide emerged victorious.
"Winning one (the championship in 1988) was great, but there was nothing like winning at home," Patterson said. "I felt like winning one championship was exciting, but to win a second one just validated our program at that point," Patterson said. "It wasn't just a one-time thing. Yes, we can have this philosophy of having the best students and athletes and well-rounded individuals and still win a championship."
The team also taught Patterson a thing or two about the seven-month journey to the national championship competition, as well as the expectations that come with the quest.
"It doesn't matter where you start in December," Patterson said. "It only matters where you end in April. Sometimes, when it looks like you have your hardest road to go in pre-season, you need to stay focused on the outcome and take it one step at a time. So, more than anything, I learned from this team to not look too far down that road."