Published: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 28, 2005 at 12:28 a.m.
It's 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday and Orley Szmuch's alarm clock is blaring. She's quickly out of bed and out the door, scrambling to make what will be four straight hours of classes.
At 12:35 p.m., she's crunching time by eating a turkey sandwich on her walk to the O'Connell Center for Florida's gymnastics practice. Inside, in the team's training room, her battered ankles are treated with heating pads and taped. Then it's a dash up a flight of stairs to the team's practice facility where a television crew is waiting for interviews.
When she's done gabbing in front of the camera, Szmuch joins her teammates for what will be a spirited three-hour practice that will draw to a close around 5 p.m.
After showering and cleaning up, Szmuch and her teammates congregate inside Gate 1 of the O'Dome to promote their upcoming meet to fans streaming in the door for Florida's men's basketball game against Georgia (the gymnastics match in question is the fifth-ranked Gators' meeting with visiting No. 4 Alabama at 7 tonight).
But Szmuch's dizzying day isn't over. She bolts from the O'Connell Center for a Student Athletic Advisory Committee meeting on campus. By the time she finally returns home, it will be 11 p.m.
Another day in the life of a Florida gymnast is over. Time to relax and exhale.
"I'm so used to it, but I feel like there are days when I hit the wall," Szmuch, a senior from Los Angeles, said. "There are days when I'll just go into my room, shut off my cell phone and just detach from the world."
Outside of football and men's basketball, gymnastics was the highest drawing sport at the University of Florida in the 2003-04 academic year. Florida's gymnastics team drew an average of 3,253 fans per meet. That number is up this season to an average of 5,933 fans after two meets.
But despite being one of Florida's top spectator sports, not much is known about what it takes to be a Florida gymnast. The Sun spent a day with the team to find out.
Practice makes perfect
On this Tuesday afternoon practice, one of the team's most unheralded teachers is in the gym. Bleary-eyed from an overnight flight from Los Angeles, the team's choreographer, Amy Smith, sips on a Diet Coke and watches the Gators warm up.
Smith, a friend of head coach Rhonda Faehn since their days at UCLA, is not an official member of the coaching staff, but plays a big role in the team's floor routines.
Smith flies to Gainesville from time to time to help choreograph the Gators' floor routines. Because the team is only allowed a set number of paid assistants, Smith works with the Gators on a voluntary basis, hoping to someday break into the collegiate coaching circle.
Most of the Gators have been using the same floor routines for several months or years. Therefore, many of them practice on the vault, bars and beam under the watchful instruction of Faehn, and assistants Randy Lane and Louis Robinson.
But there is a humorous catch to this practice. The backdrop to all the action in the practice is the music resonating through the gym as Smith works with a gymnast on her floor routine.
The beginning guitar riffs from the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" play repeatedly as Smith tries to teach a move on the floor. The 10-second snippet of the song plays over and over for about a half hour. But the team is adept at tuning out the annoyance.
"It's exhausting," Faehn said.
When floor routines aren't being fine-tuned, the teammates play their favorite CDs from the facilities' booming sound system. Across the gym, Gators are flying all over the place, on bars, beam and vault - even some landing in the facilities' giant foam pit.
Freshman Tracey Rai breaks into hysterics after she is unable to get out from under a pile of foam blocks after a bars dismount. It's just another light-hearted moment that keeps this practice loose.
Gymnasts are known for their amazing muscle tone. In their legs, arms and back, collegiate gymnasts are as strong as any other female athlete on campus.
But what's unusual about gymnasts is they don't spend any time in the weight room. All of their strength is derived from conditioning drills in practice.
"All of the stuff we do is geared toward general body strength," sophomore Katie Rue said.
Between practicing their routines, the Gators run on treadmills, ride stationary bikes, do sit-ups and take turns climbing to the top of a 20-foot rope suspended from the rafters. But in a sport that requires as much strength as balance, grace and agility, traditional weight training isn't necessary.
"We very rarely do it," Faehn said. "If they're needing stronger legs, for example, it's all done voluntarily in the summer. Everything else we do is geared toward gymnastics elements."
Like most student-athletes at Florida, the Gators gymnasts attend class in the morning before the afternoon's practice. For sophomore Samantha Lutz, it's Calculus and Wildlife Issues before noon. For Szmuch and Rue, there's often three classes before noon.
The hectic mornings leave many gymnasts eating a packed lunch on their way to practice.
"Gymnasts have to be very good time managers," Lutz said.
The team typically gets two days off during the week. These days are spent resting and leading what most would consider a normal life.
"It's catch-up day," Szmuch said. "You finally have time to run errands - I can do stuff like get my hair cut or get some gas in my car."
But days off also give the Gators time to rest their bodies.
"Sometimes your body needs the rest," Rue said. "You're so thankful for it."
But often times there aren't enough days off in a season that runs from January through the end of April.
"Some times are worse than others," Lutz said. "It can get frustrating. But I've been doing this since I was 10 years old."
Rue might not feel like a well-known athlete in Gainesville, but when she goes to area elementary schools she is.
"You don't expect these kids to know who you are," she said. "But they do."
Florida's gymnasts balance school, practice, campus meetings and their social life with frequent visits to schools and hospitals. They give back to a community that gives them great support. They also know how to promote themselves.
The greatest illustration came Tuesday night when the team passed out a giant stack of promotional flyers for 30 minutes prior to the men's basketball game. Earlier that day, the team opened practice by discussing what to wear and other specifics.
Faehn said she has had no problems with her gymnasts speaking at schools, visiting hospitals or promoting their events.
"They're wonderful with all that," Faehn said. "When I ask for some of them to go to schools, instantly hands go up. And I know what they're schedule is like. I know they get up at 8 a.m. to go to class.
"To see them do anything to help the program be successful, it's amazing to me."
Living a dream
Not even a good night's sleep can keep the Gators' thoughts from gymnastics. When such a large portion of their lives revolve around the sport, it's no surprise gymnastics creeps into their subconscious.
"I always dream about (gymnastics)," Lutz said. "They're usually very strange dreams. I'll wake up and just go 'Whoa.' ''
Lutz said her most recent dream included a bit of paranoia.
"I think it was about a meet where we did really awesome and still lost it," Lutz said.
There's no questioning the passion the Gators' gymnasts put into the sport. It truly does consume their lives. And their coaches', too.
"I was lying in bed at midnight (Monday) night and all I was thinking about was what I wanted to do with Tracey on beam," Faehn said. "It's amazing."
You can reach Brandon Zimmerman by calling 374-5051 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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