Traffic jam says a lot about gymnastics

Published: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 11:04 p.m.

This wasn't a night when the score was the biggest story.

The numbers that mattered most weren't separated by decimal points.

Florida and Georgia competed in gymnastics Friday night at the O'Connell Center and the event did not disappoint.

Neither did the crowd.

It was loud. It was smart in the ways of the sport. It was mixture of children, Generation Next, Baby Boomers and people old enough to remember when there wasn't a gymnastics program at Florida.

Most importantly, it was a gymnastics crowd unlike any before it in Gainesville.

If you decided at 6:15 Friday evening to give gymnastics a shot, you know what I'm talking about. The traffic jam was brutal. And if you were sitting in an aisle seat in the upper level, I'm guessing you were asked to slide down.

It was a record crowd for gymnastics — 10,855 — and there were people still trying to squeeze into balance beam-wide parking spots when the meet was a half-an-hour old.

“After all our meets I find my family and friends and ask them, ‘Was there traffic? Was there traffic?’” said UF's Amanda Castillo.

Oh, there was traffic. People will come, Amanda, people will most definitely come when its the biggest dual meet in the history of the school.

“It was unbelievable,” said Florida coach Rhonda Faehn. “It was amazing, really. When we came out, I saw people in the third level. We were hoping to get between 8,000 and 10,000. To surpass that shows our athletes the love that is out there.”

About the only thing lacking for much of the night was drama. Florida had to count a fall in the bars (UF's second event of the night) and Georgia seemed as if it would cruise to the win. But when Courtney McCool fell as the last Gym Dog on the beam, Florida had a chance to pull it out.

Alas, in a sport measured with calculators, Florida lost by a quarter of a tenth of a point, the smallest margin possible.

The score was a mere sidebar to the event. So, too, was the fact that it was Suzanne Yoculan's last appearance with her Georgia team in the O-Dome (she received a nice bouquet of flowers and a victory). And that it was Faehn's return from delivering a baby less than two weeks earlier.

This was about whether or not Gainesville and the surrounding gymnastics community would show up to see the defending champs taking on No. 1.

This was about whether this has truly become a gymnastics school.

Along with a football, basketball, tennis, golf and soccer school.

Because if you can't draw for the first-ever home match-up between No. 1 and No. 2 in your sport, well, you can't draw.

Florida can draw. This was validation for what Faehn is building at UF. It's not that gymnastics has been an unpopular sport at Florida. The last time a Gator team tumbled in front of 10,000 people at home was 22 years ago. Faehn's teams average around 4,000 for home meets which makes gymnastics the best attended of the women's sports.

But to draw just a football roster short of 11,000?

“I just hope it continues,” Faehn said.

The big crowd might have contributed to the early Florida mistakes but also injected adrenaline into the floor routines.

“We like the loudness,” said all-around winner Corey Hartung. “It gets us pumped up, too.”

Maybe nobody more than plucky Castillo, a 4-foot-10 fireball of energy.

“It was out of this world,” she said of the crowd. “It's something I never experienced at the University of Florida.

“I love being a Gator and I go to all of the sporting events. I see their crowds for football and basketball. I've always wanted that for gymnastics. I just stopped and looked up, tried to soak it all in.”

All the way to the top row.

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