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The Florida gymnastics team is one of several programs on campus enjoying great success this spring.

Sunday February 23, 2014Spring Bloom: Several UF Teams Show Signs of a Title Contender

The Florida gymnastics team is one of several programs on campus enjoying great success this spring.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- She grew up in tiny Pittsboro, a nondescript hamlet in central Indiana about a half hour outside Indianapolis.

But Bridget Sloan traveled the world as one of the country's top elite-level gymnasts. Her life experiences as a teenager were hardly typical.

Bridget Sloan

When she returned home from the Beijing Games in 2008 as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team, the folks in Pittsboro honored her with a parade. The next year Sloan became the all-around champion at the 2009 World Championships in London.

Sloan's two biggest fans were her parents, who often traveled with her to faraway meets. The crowds were friendly, respectful, appreciative of the performances, but nothing like those Sloan performs in front of today at the O'Connell Center.

Sloan had no idea.

"I didn't even follow college before I came here,'' Sloan quipped when asked if she was into college sports growing up. "I didn't think about college until my senior year of high school."

The vivacious Sloan is the reigning NCAA all-around and balance-beam champion and one of the more recognizable UF student-athletes in the social media and digital age we live.

She embraces the support and interaction with fans and fellow students.

"Everyone recognizes me for my hair,'' said Sloan, who opted recently to go red head.

Sloan is more than one of the faces of UF's gymnastics team, the defending NCAA champions. She is among the leaders in what has turned into a resurgent spring for the UF athletic program.

Sloan said it best after the No. 2 Gators, who have already beaten No. 1 Oklahoma, knocked down No. 3 LSU Friday night in front of more than 9,000 fans at the O'Dome.

"The Gators are on fire,'' she said. "If we keep going at the speed we're going, it's going to be a great year all-around."

Will Yeguete

She was referring to more than gymnastics.

-- Billy Donovan's No. 2-ranked Gators, after winning at Ole Miss on Saturday, are expected to climb to No. 1 in the national polls for the first time in seven years on Monday.

-- Tim Walton's Gators are already ranked No. 1 and enter today's doubleheader at home with a 16-0 record. How dominant have the Gators been? Leadoff hitter Kelsey Stewart has scored 21 runs; UF's opponents have scored 22.

-- Gregg Troy's Gators earned their second consecutive SEC men's swimming and diving championship on Saturday night in Athens, Ga. Sebastien Rousseau and Elizabeth Beisel each earned the Commissioner Trophy as the top male and female point scorer in the meet.

-- Roland Thornqvist's No. 5-ranked Gators women's tennis team defeated St. Mary's on Saturday and faces No. 3 Stanford on Sunday in Palo Alto, Calif.

Of course, there is plenty more going on around campus.

Bryan Shelton's Gators are striving to reach the consistency of the UF women's tennis team, Mike Holloway's elite track program is preparing for the SEC Indoor Championships later this month.

While the Gators men's basketball team has reeled off a school-record 19-game win streak, Amanda Butler's women's team remains in the thick of the SEC race heading into today's game against SEC leader South Carolina.

On the golf course, Emily Glaser's No. 16-ranked Gators are in New Orleans vying to play well at the Allstate Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate Championships and Buddy Alexander's men's team seeks to rebound from a flat SunTrust Invitational.

And don't forget Kevin O'Sullivan's No. 20-ranked baseball team, which opened the season last week with four wins in five games at home. The Gators are trying to salvage the finale of a three-game series at Miami today. Or Amanda O'Leary's No. 7-ranked lacrosse team, off to a 3-1 start.

Gators gymnastics coach Rhonda Faehn started her coaching career at UCLA, her alma mater, and later spent time at Nebraska.

In her 12th season at UF, Faehn has elevated the gymnastics program to where it fits perfectly into the culture Jeremy Foley has established in his 22 years at UF's athletics director.

"The atmosphere here is different,'' Faehn said. "These athletes here are amongst the elite in every sport. The same thing goes for the coaches. These coaches are all incredibly passionate. They live and breathe their sport and it's inspiring as a coach.

"We are all supporting one another."

Faehn will text Thornqvist after a big tennis win. He'll do the same.

"I've never had that anywhere else,'' Faehn said. "It's special at Florida."

The success of UF's spring sports has come at the perfect time for a fan base that had a difficult fall.

The football team's 4-8 season was a shock to Gator Nation after a memorable 11-2 season, and early postseason exits in volleyball and soccer left Florida fans yearning for their next national-title run to stand up and cheer.

Maybe that next championship will come this spring, maybe not.

As Donovan likes to say, winning a championship is a very fragile process.

But the Gators are winning and winning often. That has fans excited about the possibilities of the next four months.

Florida is showing off the kind of depth few athletic programs can come close to matching.

The girl from Pittsboro is thankful to be a part of the ride.

"It's crazy to think how strong we are all around,'' Sloan said. "A lot of schools, they have that one sport that is amazing, and then the other sports are mediocre. It's awesome to be a part of that. You are not just part of the gymnastics team, but you are a part of the UF Gator Nation.

"That means a lot."

 

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