April 5, 2013
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -
Everyone who has seen an Alabama gymnastics meet over the past three-plus years waits for this moment. Whether she is first in the lineup or toward the end, when Ashley Sledge steps up for her uneven bars routine, all eyes focus on her. More specifically everyone in the crowd is sitting on the edge of their seat, waiting for the end of her routine when she cranks around the high bar once, then twice and then lets go, soaring into the air, flipping twice in the laid out position before knifing in for the landing.
The official name for her release move is a double layout, but when Sledge does it, it seems a lot more like flying.
"It's a dismount that you see a fair amount in college gymnastics, but I've never seen anyone that has one as big as Sledge's," David Patterson said.
In a career that has included frequent stints in the all-around and a near-perfect 9.975 on the vault among other accolades, everyone knows about her double layout, even if they don't know what it's called. It is her signature skill.
"The funny thing about that is that it took me like six years to learn that dismount," Sledge said. "I could not get it - I just could not do it. I didn't do that dismount until the year before I got to college and I had only competed it once because I tore my Achilles the first meet I competed it (on a different event). But I love that dismount. That's probably the skill that I'll miss the most when I finish gymnastics, just being able to crank my giants and fly."
While everyone in the crowd sees the artistry of her flight, for Sledge, in the moment, it's all about the rhythm and the cadence she goes through in her mind as she's getting set to soar.
"I really think about the mechanics when I'm doing it because I try to keep it really rhythmic," Sledge said. "For me, it goes down, up, down, up, down, up, stick - that's what I say when I do it. I can definitely tell when it's on -- I don't like for it to spin too fast and I don't like it when it goes too high -- there's definitely a sweet spot and I know exactly when I'm in it."
And while her double layout dismount is the skill she will miss the most, it is the team aspect of Alabama gymnastics that she will miss most of all when she hangs up her grips for good.
"I'll miss the sense of team - I couldn't be an individual gymnast anymore," Sledge said. "Individual accomplishment isn't important to me anymore; I'm not in this for me. It's not what drives me. Just knowing that 16 other people are counting on me to do my job, that's what gets me thinking, `Okay, let's do this, let's get this.'"
Sledge grew up around Alabama gymnastics, living in Birmingham until she was 10 years old and going to the Alabama Gymnastics Camp each summer. So the opportunity to be a member of the Crimson Tide legacy of champions is something she looked forward to since she was young. It's one of the reasons that what she and her teammates have been able to accomplish means so much to the two-time All-American.
Her career isn't over just yet. Saturday night marks her last meet in Coleman Coliseum as she and her teammates continue on in the stretch run of this season and a shot at more championship hardware. She has though, finished one phase of her career. In December, she completed her undergraduate degree, graduating with Bachelor's in public relations. She's currently pursuing a second undergraduate degree and is contemplating a Master's degree.
"It hasn't hit me because I haven't walked (in the graduation ceremony) yet," Sledge said. "I'm still taking classes, so nothing's really changed. But I have my undergrad degree so that's pretty awesome and my parents and my family are really proud."
Her Crimson Tide journey has made a tremendous difference for Sledge, helping her undergo that metamorphosis between child and adult.
"Just knowing me when I was younger, when I was 17 coming to college and how much I've changed to reach the level of maturity that I have now. I've gotten my degree and am about to finish up a great career here. It's a proud feeling for me. It's a proud feeling for my family and friends."
Saturday night though, the two-time Scholastic All-American won't be thinking about classes, or graduate school or whatever comes after. On that night and in every moment until the end of the season, she's focused on enjoying her time with this team, and finding the sweet spot of her dismount and her final season.
"I'm at my best, and I think as a team we're at our best when we go into a meet thinking `You've done this a million times, so do your thing and let everyone get their popcorn ready,'" Sledge said. "That's what's best for me ¬- that's what's best for the team."