GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The morning after a meet is often a true wake-up call for a gymnast.
For those who normally compete in all four events – such as Gators upperclassmen Marissa King and Ashanee Dickerson – waking up can be the start of a painful day.
Ankles hurt. Shoulders are sore. Wrists throb when trying to unscrew the cap to a gallon of milk.
The thought of competing on back-to-back days can be enough to pull the covers back over your head.
However, if the Gators do what they expect to on Friday – advance past the first round and into the Super Six at Saturday's NCAA Gymnastic Finals in Duluth, Ga. – they will do so armed with the confidence that their bodies are more prepared for the challenge than perhaps at any point in head coach Rhonda Faehn's 10 years leading the program.
"Things haven't felt like a struggle,'' King said. "That hasn't happened this year. A lot of us are looking good."
"I feel real good right now,'' she said. "My ankles and everything are holding up really well."
Have the Gators discovered the Fountain of Youth and taken a sip?
Nope, nothing that mystical. Instead, after watching her team limp into the NCAA Championships a year ago in Cleveland and then fall flat, Faehn implemented a less-rigid and more-thoughtful training program this season.
The result is a team peaking at the right time with hopes of joining the Big Four – Utah, UCLA, Alabama and Georgia – as the only schools to win an NCAA title.
"There is really no comparison," Faehn said. "By this time in past years they were hanging by a thread, and physical and emotionally, they were very strained. It was harder for them to get pumped and to get themselves confident."
Last season's disappointing finish at the NCAA Championships served as Faehn's wake-up call. The Gators entered the meet as a favorite but never threatened due to too many bumps and bruises – and the accompanying mental burden those injuries caused.
Faehn decided a change in philosophy was needed.
In her first five years after taking over the program, much of Faehn's' mission was to put Florida "on the map" nationally. With that accomplished, she said much of the last five years have focused on building one of the nation's elite programs.
Part of that mission is to win that elusive national title. The Gators have been in the hunt but never reached the pinnacle.
So, to counter last year's slow physical decline as the season progressed, Faehn opted not to turn up the intensity to high as soon as the team arrived on campus in the fall. Instead, there was a slow burn.
The gymnasts cut back on the physical demands of refining their daily routines to focus more on strength and cardio conditioning.
"We did skills but more like half-routines,'' Dickerson said. "We waited until almost November to do full routines."
Once the season started, the shift in approach manifested itself in other ways. Instead of coming off a meet and returning full speed into the practice studio the following week, the gymnasts gradually built their way back up to the next meet.
Communication lines opened. If a gymnast had a nagging injury, Faehn didn't hesitate to tell her to take a few days off to rehab and get well before the next competition.
"I think it has really paid off,'' Faehn said. "I see it in their eyes before practice lineups."
King is the defending NCAA vault champion. However, while she won an individual title in Cleveland a year ago, the team title is what she really covets.
She is confident the Gators are ready physically for the challenge, something she couldn't say a year ago. When King struggled with a shoulder injury in midseason, she took certain events off to recover, including a key meet at Nebraska.
In the past she would have tried to compete through the pain.
"We've taken that day off as an advantage to get extra treatment, do extra rehab and really look after ourselves,'' King said. "We've been smart. They [coaches] have literally made a 180 to see what happens.
"You can see a distinctive difference. I feel the excitement of regionals and nationals. I don't feel there is any negativity going around at all. There is no greater feeling that knowing you are prepared for a competition. I feel like we are still building."
The change in philosophy involved some heart-to-heart discussions between Faehn and her assistants, Adrian Burde and Robert Ladanyi.
Was it the right thing to do? How would the team respond? Could it be the difference between knocking at the door of an NCAA title and finally winning one?
The Gators won the SEC title last month and followed that performance by winning the NCAA Raleigh Regional nine days ago. There is one meet left – the one the Gators have been building toward since last year's breakdown in Cleveland.
Will the new approach to training make the ultimate difference? That remains the greatest question of all.
"I know these athletes are extremely talented and they are unbelievable competitors,'' Faehn said. "They are going to do amazing if they feel good. If they are feeling fresh and feeling strong, they can do anything."