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Gators coach Rhonda Faehn has elevated Florida's gymnastics program to new heights in her 11 seasons.

Monday April 22, 2013Faehn Saw UF Gymnastics a Gold Mine Waiting to be Discovered

Gators coach Rhonda Faehn has elevated Florida's gymnastics program to new heights in her 11 seasons.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

LOS ANGELES -- On the confetti-strewn floor of Pauley Pavilion late Saturday night, Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley made a beeline for Gators gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn shortly after the results became official.

The Gators had just completed a job they had threatened to do several times in Faehn's 11 seasons and Foley wanted to offer congratulations and join the celebration. Florida finally had its first NCAA national title after so many close calls.

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Under Faehn, Florida had advanced to the NCAA Championships every season of her tenure, making the Super Six eight times, including seven of the last eight years. The Gators had won four Southeastern Conference titles and eight regional titles since Faehn took over.

At the NCAAs, Florida had finished second (2012), third (2007), fourth (2009, '08, '06), fifth (2010, '04) and seventh (2011, '05, '03) in the country but never first.

That all changed Saturday when the Gators recovered from early trouble -- a pair of falls on beam -- to complete a riveting comeback and defeat runner-up Oklahoma and third-place Alabama.

The Gators joined Alabama, Georgia, Utah and UCLA as the only programs to win NCAA gymnastics national titles since the organization began to govern the sport prior to the 1981-82 season.

They also erased any questions they didn't have the moxie to reach the sport's mountaintop.

"I never even thought a sense of here we go again,'' Faehn said. "This team is completely different. There was no looking back to anything in the past. It was just a team on a mission. They did it."

Florida's comeback capped a season in which the Gators won the triple crown of gymnastics: conference, regional and national titles.

It also reinforced to Foley how far the program has come since Faehn was hired in May 2002.

"She's built our program,'' Foley said. "When we hired her, the goal was we wanted to be like Alabama, we wanted to be like Georgia, we wanted to be like Utah, we didn't understand why we couldn't be like them. We wanted to be a factor.

"Look at what she has done. I feel great for her, her staff, and obviously these kids."

A second-team All-American at UCLA, where she competed from 1990-92, and a traveling alternate on the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team in Seoul, Faehn started her coaching career as a graduate assistant at her alma mater. She left in 1994 to become head coach at a private training center in Pennsylvania and later served stints as an assistant at Maryland and Nebraska.

At Nebraska, after three seasons as an assistant, she was elevated to associate head coach in 2001 and helped the Huskers finish fifth at the 2002 national finals. By that time Faehn had developed a reputation as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks.

Meanwhile, the Florida program had become stagnant under former coach Judi Markell, finishing no higher than third in the SEC during her final four seasons.

Seeking a new direction for the program, Foley got Faehn's name and reached out to see if there was any interest.

Foley remembers calling Faehn's office at Nebraska on a Friday afternoon after the season was over. Faehn was in her office, something that caught Foley's attention. He had expected to leave a message.

After some back-and-forth dialogue, Foley asked Faehn what she could do to help Florida become a national program.

He got his answer quickly.

"I had an email and a pretty good position paper the next morning,'' Foley said. "Obviously she wanted the job."

Faehn came in for an interview, won over Florida's administration, and was hired with a clear directive: turn the program into a consistent contender in the SEC and eventually on the national stage.

As for the 41-year-old Faehn, a native Minnesotan who had just turned 31 at the time of her hiring, she saw all the ingredients in place to do what Foley wanted done.

"It was a gold mine just waiting for success,'' Faehn said. "I felt there was so much potential. Who wouldn't want to go there? It was undiscovered almost and people needed to see how amazing it was.

"That's what I felt for years when I was coaching at other places, that Florida was just incredible -- you had the facilities, you had the climate, you had the atmosphere, you had the location. When that position opened, that was a no-brainer."

The program slowly climbed back toward the top of the SEC, and this season captured its first back-to-back conference crowns in 28 years.

Florida came close to cracking the Big Four a year ago but finished national runner-up to back-to-back defending champion Alabama in a meet that came down to the final rotation.

But with the addition this season of freshman Bridget Sloan, the 2009 World Champion, and a strong returning cast that included seniors Marissa King, Randy Stageberg and Ashanee Dickerson, defending NCAA all-around champion Kytra Hunter and junior Mackenzie Caquatto, Faehn knew she had a special team in Year 11.

"It has been years in the making and everyone trusted what we were doing at Florida and they believed in us,'' Faehn said. "It really is the most fun we've ever had. They are the least-maintenance but also the smartest athletes we've ever coached. It's been a dream come true. It's been a fun ride."

The ride ended with the Gators dancing and prancing and taking pictures with the national championship trophy.

They were not going to be denied.

"We weren't leaving this arena without a fight,'' Caquatto said. "Every girl showed how much heart they had, how much they love this sport and put everything on the line. We couldn't have done it without each other. It's truly a team win."

While Dickerson, King and Stageberg won't be back next season, Hunter, Caquatto, Sloan, Bridgette Caquatto, Alaina Johnson, Rachel Spicer and Kiersten Wang provide a strong nucleus to build around.

The 2013 Gators are national champions. Meanwhile, the program is in the best shape it has ever been in, loaded with a deep and talented roster, plus a new practice studio and a national championship trophy to bring to Monday night's welcome-home celebration at the O'Connell Center.

"I think it's just maybe the start for us,'' Foley said. "I'm not saying win a national championship every year, but become that program that we wanted to be when we hired Rhonda. We all thought she was someone with the charisma, the background, the work ethic and could be someone special.

"So far, so good."

 

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