It certainly did not come easy for Alabama.
Of course, that could be the motto of this 2023 season. After Coach Dana Duckworth’s unexpected departure, new coach Ashley Priess Johnston has made a lot of changes to the program in personnel and approach in a very short amount of time.
Her job has not been made easier by a brutal schedule and injuries to some of her best performers — just two weeks ago, Alabama had three freshmen competing in various exercises.
It showed too.
Entering Friday night’s meet, Alabama was siting at 11th in the nation, its lowest ranking in 25 years. APJ was always going to get a mulligan for that; but more troubling, each week had seen scoring go down. Alabama had dropped a road meet to solid-but-not-great Kentucky, and been blown out on its home mats by Florida.
From the outside, it did not seem as though the program was coalescing into a stronger unit, rather that this would functionally be Year Zero under the new regime — and that some of those outstanding seniors would see their season derailed by some shaky roster integration, changes in coaching style, and (especially) injuries.
Then came the Power of Pink meet, where reigning Olympic All-around gold medalist Suni Lee and the grotesquely overscored No. 6 Auburn Tigers wheeled into Tuscaloosa as prohibitive favorites.
After one rotation, the Tide found itself down almost a third of a point. It very much appeared that a reprise of the Florida meet was on the horizon.
But something happened: And, whether it was Senior leadership, the gravitas of the event, coaching, good ole’ fashioned hate, Alabama remembering who they are and that this is their sport, too much native talent to be denied — whatever combination of things it was, something lit a thermonuclear fire under the Crimson Tide.
You expect to see a team improve as the season goes along, and we were familiar with that pattern under Dana: slow season starts, giving way to a very strong late season squad. But rarely do you see an entire season’s worth of improvement occur in three rotations.
Down the stretch, Alabama would improve its scoring in each successive exercise, almost setting a program record on the Balance Beam. Suni would drop a 10, then it would be followed up by Luisa doing so. And, when it came to the final rotation, with the crowd and momentum on their side, Hollywood could not script it better: Alabama crushed the Floor...and did set a program record in that final frame of the night.
Good guys: 197.850
I shan’t reprise the entire meet. It’s embedded above for your viewing pleasure, and as always, the Crimson White did a fantastic job recapping the event. Rather the point of this is what it could portend. As the girls trusted themselves and their ability, as they fed off each successive competitor and event, the Tide looked every bit the team that we thought we’d see all year: one loaded with All-American seniors, outstanding event specialists, and scary-good freshmen.
Alabama looked confident, skilled. It was enjoying the moment.
And above all, it looked dangerous — a team that can legitimately win a national title.
What a huge win for the girls, for Coach APJ, and a very important one just as ‘Bama gymnastics had reached an inflection point.
Whatever that version of Alabama was in Coleman Coliseum on Friday night, wherever they were lurking, that team can no longer hide behind a carapace of sluggishness or inconsistency. Now that they know what they’re capable of doing, now that they believe they can hang with anyone in the country, it’s a matter of doing so.
After all, they just did.