Gators Rhonda Faehn leads Florida to back-to-back gymnastics national titles "the right way"
When Rhonda Faehn took over the Florida gymnastics program 12 years ago, she said her major goal was to build Florida into a place where top recruits would always consider among their potential choices.
After Saturday night, it's safe to say Faehn has accomplished that goal.
In what Faehn called the Gators' best overall performance of the season, Florida rallied in the final rotation to earn its second consecutive NCAA Gymnastics Championship Saturday night in Birmingham. The Gators shared the title with Oklahoma after the two finished with identical scores of 198.175. It is the first tie in the 33-year history of the NCAA gymnastics championships.
"What an incredible weekend of gymnastics," Faehn said Monday. I’m so proud of all of our athletes that competed their hearts out and really put together the best weekend of gymnastics that we’ve done all year. They just left it all out there on the floor and the results just couldn’t have been in better. I was proud for our senior class. . . to go out there and just what a way to finish off their careers winning back-to-back national titles, especially with as many injuries as they’ve had to deal with throughout their careers. It’s really still surreal, it’s going to take awhile to set in."
Florida is the first team to win its first two NCAA Championships in consecutive years since Utah claimed the first five NCAA titles (1982-86). Six teams have claimed national gymnastics team titles - Alabama, UCLA, Florida, Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma. That is the fewest number of different teams to
claim the national crown among the 13 sports challenging for national titles since the NCAA began fielding women’s championships in the 1981-82 season.
The Gators are also the first team which began the season at No. 1 in the GymInfo preseason poll to win the NCAA title since Georgia in 2009.
Florda won its second title in dramatic form. The Gators entered the final rotation trailing Oklahoma, which had scored the highest score in NCAA Tournament history and was awaiting Florida's completion of the meet in first place. After Kytra Hunter scored a 9.95 on the floor routine, it was up to Bridgette Caquatto to do at least the same, if not better, for the Gators to win the title.
“It was so special because and it was a perfect position for her because she had put so much pressure on herself," Faehn said. "We were in that exact scenario a month ago for the SEC championships,in that exact same arena, on that floor – and we didn’t perform the way we wanted to. And that was the best learning experience for the entire team, but also for Bridgette because she was able to step inside herself to figure out what she was thinking when the mistake happened (at SEC’s) and what she needed to do the next time she was put in that situation. And there she was, exactly in that situation, but the pressure level raised probably a million times. And she performed beautifully. And that’s the mark of a tremendous mental competitor. is that when the biggest pressure is on, they deliver. I was thrilled for her."
Faehn said she didn't talk to Hunter and Caquatto about what scores they needed because she didn't want to add any pressure before they took the floor to compete.
“I had an idea that they both had to basically hit the routines of their life, the best that they could do," she said. "And I was just telling them just go out and have fun and do what you know how to do. You really cannot put that extra pressure on them if you let them know. They know what’s at stake. They can feel the intensity in the atmosphere. But it was wonderful because that was an exception routine for Kytra, no doubt. And then Bridgette that’s one of the best she’s done all year. And then at that point, we just have to leave it in the hands of the judges because we didn’t really know exactly the score. And when we finished, I just turned to the athletes and said, you know what it doesn’t matter what the score is, how it finishes, I’m just proud of the way you performed. That Super Six competition, that was the best performance overall from all of our athletes for the whole season. And that’s all you can ask from the team.
"And then I heard Adrian (Burde, UF assistant coach) say we tied and I was like ‘What does that mean?’ Nobody’s ever tied before. So instantly I was like somebody get out the calculator because we might have to count that sixth score. And then somebody said if they do a tiebreak you win by a quarter of a tenth. And then somebody came over from the NCAA and said ‘we don’t break the tie'. So Adrian ran over to Oklahoma and told them they’d won too. And it was just a great way to share the title with Oklahoma."
Three years ago, the Gators entered the national championships ranked No. 1 and with high expectations to win it all, but fell short. Faehn said she learned some valuable lessons from that season.
“I think one of the biggest things is that it’s important that the athletes are able to buy in and believe that not only are they capable of winning, but stepping back and not having that expectation," she said. "In the past I felt they were focused in on the end result, and when you do that you get ahead of yourself and you’re not focusing in on the present and what’s right in front of you. And the last few years I think we’ve really done a great job of being able to step back and kind of keep the big ahhh at the end of the season away from them so that their sole focus is taking it one step at a time – qualifying for the Super Six and not thinking about how you want to win the title before you even compete in the Super Six. And then the next thing is just really grateful to be on that floor and given a possibility to win. And then taking it event per event. It’s easier said than done. It’s no doubt it’s so hard to keep them focused, to not look at the score, to not get distracted by the crowd. And that’s the main thing."
Now, with a state-of-the-art practice facility and back-to-back national titles, Faehn has seen the program she envisioned become a reality. And with success, she hopes, comes recognition by top recruits that she's doing something right.
"I think the most important thing is that everyone can see, by winning, everyone can see that we’re doing things the right way," Faehn said. "From the very beginning I said this is an extremely classy program, extremely classy university, and we’re always going to do everything the right way. And just taking it step by step, I think that then shows the results. And it’s just going to keep getting better and better."