Friday January 25, 2013Bridget Sloan's Fresh Start with Gators a Win-Win Situation
Bridget Sloan is enjoying being a part of the Florida Gators team.
Bridget Sloan is enjoying being a part of the Florida Gators team.
Seven months have passed since she felt the twinge in her left elbow while warming up on the uneven bars at last summer’s U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials.
Florida freshman Bridget Sloan’s bid to go to London as a member of Team USA ended with a sprained elbow. Just like that, the 2009 all-around world champion’s career as a senior-elite gymnast was over, the injury coming less than a week after her 20th birthday.
With her former U.S. teammates gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated and the Olympics unfolding in London, Sloan spent some time away from the sport she started as a 4-year-old in her hometown of Pittsboro, Ind. But before long she was back in a gym working with children at summer camps.
Sloan is not the type to sit around and fret over a missed Olympic bid.
“It was good for me to get away and get away from my element,’’ Sloan said. “It kind of helped me realize that I had accomplished so much in a short amount of time. From 16 to age 20, I had made an Olympic team; I had made three World Championship teams. It kind of made me realize that I had an amazing career and that I was ready to take that career to Florida and start a whole new chapter.”
“Going to those camps and talking to the kids about my experiences, I think that’s what kind of kick-started my excitement on going to Florida.”
Bridget Sloan, shown above in 2009 World Championships’ all-around competition, is the first all-around World Champion to compete on the collegiate stage. Florida faces Auburn tonight at 7 p.m. for the Gators Link to Pink meet. Photo by John Cheng
In her brief career with the Gators, Sloan has discovered the sport has more to offer than she realized.
First, the whole team concept is new to her. While she was a member of Team USA, the dynamics of a team in international competition are much different from those of a college team. Sloan now travels and practices with her teammates instead of arriving separately and often being isolated during training.
Next, Sloan has much more on her table than practice and physical therapy sessions. There are classes and tutors and team-bonding events. All parts of the college life she wasn’t sure she wanted to experience earlier in her career.
Finally, Sloan was officially introduced to the SEC in only her second meet.
The Gators were at LSU two weeks ago and Sloan was on the beam. She’s competed all over the world but had never experienced anything like what was taking place at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a crowd like that against me,’’ she said. “There was so much going on around me.”
Sloan fell off the beam in a true rarity.
“It was kind of an eye opener,’’ she said. “I do need to still try just as hard in practice as I do at the meet. It’s not one of those things where I can just get on the beam and know I’m going to hit it. I have to focus and kind of get in the zone a little more. It was good for me to have that experience and realize I’m going to make mistakes.”
Gators gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn has some big wins in her decade leading the program. The Gators have won three SEC team titles and finished runner-up at the NCAA Finals a season ago.
The recruiting battle for Sloan ranks up there, too.
Sloan has been a name in the gymnastics world for years, highlighted by her all-around world title in 2009 and her role as the youngest member on the U.S. Olympic Team that won silver in Beijing in 2008.
When the Gators opened the season with a win over Ball State earlier this month at the O’Connell Center, Sloan became the first world champion to compete as a collegian.
“She had her pick,’’ Faehn said. “She could have chosen any school she wanted. Every school would have died to have her.”
Sloan’s decision came down to three schools: Florida, Utah and Georgia.
She struggled with the decision for weeks. Finally, Sloan’s mom, Mary, handed her the phone one morning and told her she needed to call the three coaches with her decision.
She dialed Utah coach Greg Marsden first. Next was Georgia’s Jay Clark. Finally, Sloan called Faehn. She missed her on the first attempt.
Faehn answered on the next try.
“I really hate reptiles but I do want to be a Gator,’’ Sloan told her.
“I about dropped the phone,’’ Faehn said. “I was just thrilled. She is like a present.”
The addition of Sloan gave the Gators the top-ranked recruiting class in the country according to CollegeGymFan.com and bolsters the Gators’ quest to capture their first national title. Florida came close last year but was edged by SEC rival Alabama in an NCAA Finals that came down to the final routine.
Sloan has not looked back on her decision, taking a similar approach as to when she suffered the elbow injury at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“I’m the type of person that I got close to almost every single coach,’’ Sloan said. “I was able to call them up any time and have a normal conversation. I knew that wherever I was going was going to have a great gymnastics team. I wasn’t worried about that.
“It really came down to which school had the right classes for me; which school had the right campus for me. I have no regrets about anything.”
In her first three college meets, Sloan posted a meet-best score of 9.925 on the vault against Ball State and a 9.90 score on the beam in last week’s win against Missouri. She also competed in the floor exercise for the first time as a collegian against Missouri, posting a score of 9.775.
When the Gators return to action tonight at home against Auburn, Sloan wants to continue to show improvement as she prepares for the grind of the college season compared to the spread-out competitions of a gymnast competing on the international stage.
“Preseason was very long. I wasn’t really used to having a long preseason, and then to have 14 meets in 18 weeks, to me that’s just crazy because normally I used to compete twice a year tops,’’ Sloan said. “It’s been a fun ride. I’m definitely still tweaking.”
To help Sloan adjust to the increased pace of competition, Faehn is making sure not to rush her. Sloan won’t compete in all-around each meet to protect her body from breaking down early in the season.
The plan has worked well so far for Sloan, who told reporters after the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June that her body was “screaming at me.”
“With Bridget, our first concern was she had a history of a lot of injuries and not a lot of competition time the last few years,’’ Faehn said. “That happens a lot with elite gymnasts because they are doing such difficult skills and so much is required of them.
“Our goal was to make sure we balanced out her training and her routines to be able to see if we could get more from her without feeling that she is overwhelmed and there is too much on her body. That’s kind of the area we are in right now.
Faehn said Sloan is “nowhere near what she is capable of doing and she knows that.”
Sloan agrees. She is focused on getting better and having fun while doing it. Whatever disappointment lingered as she walked off the mat for the final time as an Olympic hopeful has long since passed.
“I feel great. My body feels good. People have been telling me I just look so happy when I’m out there,’’ she said. “It probably does look different because at Olympic Trials, yes that’s not the way I wanted to end my career, but I’ve always lived by the saying that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Clearly I was not meant to make that Olympic team.
“Thinking back on it, I’m not sure if I was able to make the Olympic team that I could still come to college right afterward. That’s a lot of impact on your body. It was kind of a blessing in disguise.”