Alabama Gymnastics Wins First National Title
Sarah and David were celebrating their 10th anniversary of coaching the Crimson Tide in 1988. Their success had been nothing short of amazing, with five consecutive top-6 finishes including a high of third in 1986. Alabama was a strong team, with a solid foundation built on its coaches and the type of athletes they chose to bring into the program. The questions began brewing in the Patterson's minds though - could their philosophy of developing the whole person produce championships? Would they be able to do things the way they wanted and still climb the final rung and produce a championship? The questions were answered emphatically in 1988.
Alabama started the year 10-strong. It was a young squad, with two seniors, one junior, four sophomores and three freshmen. The Pattersons added to the Tide's arsenal in January, when Kim Masters joined the Tide. Masters had planned to delay college for a year to train for the Seoul Olympics. After finishing ninth at the USA Gymnastics Championships the summer before, her aspirations for the Olympic rings seemed within her grasp. Striving for that goal lost its appeal though and after much thought, she opted for college and the Tide. With its roster set, the season began. Alabama reeled off a trio of wins to get things going. Then something strange happened - Alabama tied LSU.
With fractions of points being added up over the course of 24 individual performances, ties are rare in collegiate gymnastics. Then, at the next meet, Alabama did it again; tying Georgia at the UA hosted Red and White Classic and beating Utah.
In any other season, that would have been what the year would be known by, the year of two ties. This squad, though, was destined for far greater things.
Alabama then set the tone for the postseason by winning its first ever Southeastern Conference Championship with a 190.15. It was only the second time in school history that it had scored in the 190s. The Tide outpointed second-place Georgia by .95.
The regionals were next for the Tide and a good performance would be necessary to advance to the NCAA Championships. Instead of a good performance, Alabama produced a school and NCAA-best mark of 191.75. The Tide posted the meet's top score, both individually and as a team, on all four events. Masters won the all-around title followed by Marie Robbins in second and Tina Rinker in fourth.
"I didn't think it was going to be possible to exceed what we did at the Southeastern Conference Championship, but they certainly did," Sarah Patterson said. "They came back and did a better job."
Nationals were in Salt Lake City, Utah, home of fivetime NCAA Champion Utah, the No. 2 seed. Among others, Alabama would face defending NCAA Champs Georgia, No. 3 seeded LSU and No. 4 seeded Florida. Both the competition and the floor were familiar. The position, being the No. 1 seed, was not.
"I don't think there's extra pressure on us being the No. 1 seed," Sarah said. "We just achieved so many things - winning the SEC, the record in the regionals and the No. 1 seed - that we're too proud of what we've already accomplished to feel pressure."
If Alabama disagreed with their coach, it did not show. Those watching from the stands and those on press row observed a Crimson Tide team that was calm and loose going into the championships, having fun, being playful and displaying an indomitable team spirit.
Alabama scored an NCAA Championship record on the way to its first national championship, shattering the mark previously held by Utah, (188.35), with a 190.05. The Tide's highest all-around finish was ninth-place, highlighting the team effort it took to win the championship.
Consistency, along with confidence and enthusiasm were the keys for the Crimson Tide. The Pattersons' crew hit 23 of 24 routines, including a six-for-six balance beam rotation. "It was the beam - that's where we won it," Sarah said. "That was our best beam score of the year."
And if the beam was the event that led Alabama to the title, its seniors were the class pointing the way. "This national championship is for our two seniors - Alli Beldon and Kathy Bilodeau. They hit all three events tonight. They were models for us all year. We just learned from their consistency which has been our forte all season."
Four Alabama gymnasts earned seven All-American honors. Sarah Patterson was named NCAA Coach of the Year, but most importantly, Alabama had its first NCAA Championship.
"It's so unbelievable," Robbins said. "We had so much fun. That's when we are at our best."
Sophomore Cheri Way said the seeds of the championship were sown long before the trip to Utah.
"I realized we could win the national title after one long and tiresome Tuesday practice when we decided to go out and do it for us," Way said. "When I realized we had won... my whole body went numb."
The good times were far from over.
"The best part about winning the championship was coming back home to Alabama," Blumberg said, a sentiment echoed by all her teammates at one point or another during that magic year.
On April 30, 1988, the State of Alabama declared "Alabama Gymnasts' Day." There was a parade and a ceremony at the base of Denny Chimes. The next fall, the gymnasts received their championship rings at half time of the Vanderbilt football game.