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Gators gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn has high hopes for the Gators as they open defense of their national title.

Friday January 10, 2014Eyes Wide Open: Faehn Optimistic as Gators Open Where They Fulfilled Title Quest

Gators gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn has high hopes for the Gators as they open defense of their national title.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When you’re 17 and a member of the U.S. Olympic Team, the ability to fully appreciate something like a letter from the president remains green.

At least it was for Rhonda Faehn when as a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team, she received a letter from former President George H.W. Bush offering support.

“I’ve learned to appreciate it now,’’ Faehn said. “At the time I didn’t really understand the importance of it.”

When you’re 42 with a husband, two young sons and more than a decade’s worth of head-coach experience, well, your perspective changes.

A letter from the governor is cherished. A note from the mayor prized. A hug from a friend or neighbor treasured.

Faehn has received all the above since the Gators gymnastics team captured the program’s first national title in April. The Gators finally made it over the huge hurdle that stood between them and the Big Four: Alabama, Georgia, Utah and UCLA.

Those four programs were the only ones to win a national title in women’s gymnastics since the NCAA began to govern the sport prior to the 1981-82 season. That changed on a Saturday night nearly nine months ago at UCLA’s historic Pauley Pavilion.

The Gators overcome early trouble to regroup and end the night celebrating as confetti fell from the rafters.

The agony of so many close calls -- Florida had finished second (2012), third (2007), fourth (2009, '08, '06), fifth (2010, '04) and seventh (2011, '05, '03) under Faehn but never first – were swept away by the ecstasy of a national title.

How did the national title impact the program heading into this season?

“I think the biggest thing is that it really opened our athletes’ eyes,’’ Faehn said. “I’ve been told that by other coaches. Now there are five teams that have ever won. The great part now is that your athletes’ eyes are open. They know what it’s like to win. They know what they had to do to win.

“Now that their eyes are open, I think they are really aggressive but also calm and confident at the same time.”

On Saturday night Faehn and the defending national champion Gators will open the 2014 season in the same place they took all those pictures in April: at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. It marks Florida’s first dual meet against the Bruins since 2005.

Returning to her alma mater – Faehn graduated from UCLA in 1994 – and so soon after the memorable events of last April stirred ample emotions for Faehn.

“It’s really weird, but I have to compartmentalize,’’ she said. “It does seem like we were just there and the national championship just happened. And then at the same time, I look at the fall, and it was so long and we are really just excited to compete.

“It kind of goes both ways depending on the day.”

Bridget Sloan

The Gators open the season ranked No. 1. They have a strong nucleus returning led by perhaps the most accomplished duo on any team in the country: Bridget Sloan and Kytra Hunter.

Hunter was the NCAA all-around and vault champion in 2012, and Sloan (photo, left) won the all-around and beam national titles last season. Hunter and Sloan are joined by 2013 uneven bars national champion Alaina Johnson, and the Caquatto sisters – Mackenzie and Bridgette – to form the backbone of Faehn’s 12th UF team.

Faehn has enjoyed the eight months since edging runner-up Oklahoma and two-time defending national champion Alabama at last spring’s Super Six.

When the Gators returned to campus, they were greeted at the O’Connell Center by fans attending a pep rally to celebrate their title. Faehn took a vacation with her family and then returned ready to build toward the future.

But she also took time to enjoy some of the fringe benefits that come with winning a national championship.

“I’ve been asked to do a lot more speaking and more appearances, which is great, because it’s going to push gymnastics out there a little bit more in the spotlight,’’ Faehn said. “Our goal is for people to come through the doors and be able to see an amazing hour and half of athletics.”

When they do, they will see the national championship banner hanging from the rafters of the O’Dome. Faehn said she smiles whenever she glances up during a Gators basketball game and sees the banner.

It’s a reminder of where she has been and where she is.

“It’s nice to see that people recognize the athletes and what they have gone through and what was achieved,’’ Faehn said. “It’s been fun.”

With a new season on the horizon, Faehn is optimistic this year’s team can do something special, too. The Gators have the talent and experience. Like the rest of the field, they will need some luck.

They must also be healthy in April when the NCAA Tournament starts.

For starters, the Gators hope Saturday’s trip to UCLA is as fun as their last one.

“We are a new team and every team has to build with what they have and not rely on the past. They know that,’’ Faehn said. “They have been a joy so far this year to work with. I’m anxious to start the season and see the fruits of their labor.”


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