Photo: Gators gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn (left) talks to Ann Woods Smith (middle) on Friday.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the start of the Gators gymnastics team’s practice Friday afternoon, someone very familiar with what the Gators are preparing for stopped by to visit.
The Gators will head to Duluth, Ga., next weekend to compete in the NCAA Gymnastics Championships. Only four schools – Utah, UCLA, Alabama and Georgia – have won an NCAA title since the sport starting holding a NCAA Division I national championship meet in 1982.
That same year, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, an organization that governed women’s collegiate sports before Title IX, held its final national championship meet.
The Gators, led by all-around champion Ann Woods, won their only gymnastics national title.
Thirty years later Florida continues its quest to match the 1982 team’s historic win.
“They’re there,’’ said Woods, known as Ann Woods Smith today. “I’ve been watching them. They’re there. They really are.”
Woods was in town to show her daughter Chandler around campus. Chandler was recently accepted into UF and plans to start classes during the Summer B session.
Woods Smith lives in New Jersey and works in public relations for a health-care company. She first arrived at UF in 1980 as a sophomore, transferring from Clarion State along with five of her teammates when their coach, Ernestine Weaver, was hired at Florida.
With large schools such as Florida starting gymnastics programs, Weaver realized she could no longer compete in Division I at Clarion State, prompting the move south.
Woods Smith and her teammates decided to tag along.
“She got offered the head-coaching job here at Florida and we all got calls that summer saying, ‘I’m going to be starting at Florida in the fall, do you want to come?’ We could start competing right away.”
The group quickly produced results but it wasn’t until Woods Smith’s senior year that the Gators won the AIAW national title. Woods Smith was so superstitious that she refused to bring a camera – she didn’t want to appear overconfident – to record the moment in pictures.
“We went into that last nationals just knowing that we had been in the top three and knowing we wanted it so badly,’’ she said Friday. “We knew all we had to do was hit our routines. That’s what we did.”
No one knew then that 30 years later the Gators would still be chasing that elusive second national title.
Woods Smith watched the Gators win the SEC Championship a few weeks ago. She sees a different team than the ones that have come close in recent years at the NCAA Finals but fell short.
“They’ve got so much depth,’’ she said. “This team has all the elements. And you see the confidence in their faces and they are having fun at the same time. If they bring all that to the nationals they will do very well.”
And what if the Gators do win?
“I would just be so proud of them,’’ she said. “I’ve been watching them year after year going after it.”