CLEVELAND “”mdash; You could see the tension. Covered white with chalk, toes fiercely gripped the leather skin of the balance beam, refusing to let go.
Letting go was not an option for the UCLA gymnasts because that would let Alabama win. The Bruins wanted the Crimson Tide to fight for their victory so those toes refused to slip.
Powered by six solid beam routines, the Bruins hit their third-highest beam total of the season, a 49.200. But it was not enough to overcome Alabama’s 49.450 on floor exercise, and UCLA was denied a second straight NCAA Championship at the Wolstein Center on Saturday.
“I knew that we were going to need a really big beam rotation,” junior Elyse Hopfner-Hibbs said. “I didn’t know the score but just for our own satisfaction. There are still things we need to work on, but we have next year.”
The two teams were separated by a hair going into the final rotation with the Crimson Tide talking a 0.025-point lead over the Bruins. With each gymnast on both teams receiving almost the same score, the competition stayed close until the final three competitors performed.
The last two Alabama gymnasts hit a 9.925 and a 9.950 so by the time freshman Olivia Courtney was halfway done with her beam routine, the 2011 NCAA Champion had been decided.
This fact did not deter Courtney, the final Bruin to compete, who completed her beam routine to guarantee that UCLA hit 24-for-24 routines. UCLA finished with a team total of 197.375 compared to Alabama’s 197.650.
“I was nervous because you know, it’s a competition and (beam) is our last event and we have had trouble on it before,” Courtney said. “But once everyone hit, they gave me so much confidence that I know I could do it too.”
After faltering in the national semifinals, the Bruins knew that their performance in Saturday’s Super Six competition was one that they could hang their hats on.
“If you would have told us in like January and February when we lost two of our best athletes that we were going to go the national championships and score a 197, I would have said “˜Really?’,” coach Valorie Kondos Field said. “I wanted them to go out and hit and we did better than I had even anticipated we would do.
“I am extremely proud and I hope that the girls are too. Right now they don’t like to lose but I think that they feel it, they know that they had a great championship.”
Despite the selection process before the NCAA team finals being totally random, UCLA drew the same rotation order as it did in the semifinals on Friday. Although the Bruins were once again selected to compete in their weakest event last, Kondos Field confidently denied that it mattered.
“I didn’t really care,” she said. “The only reason it bothered me is that we have been battling with Olivia (Courtney’s) hamstring and floor (UCLA’s first event) is the worst for her. From a competitive viewpoint, it doesn’t matter.”
While the initial shock of losing a national championship is never easy, the team knows the pain will eventually be replaced with the knowledge that they reached their peak when it mattered.
“Of course everyone wants to win, but considering how far we have come this season, we can only be proud of ourselves,” Hopfner-Hibbs said. “We had a really rough start and we have come so far to even make it here.”
The six gymnasts that competed on beam in the final moments of the NCAA Championships refused to let go because they knew that there was more than a national title at stake.
They forced themselves to hang on just to guarantee that no one could have any regrets about the way the Bruins had performed.
“The only way I could have felt better about today is if we could have won, if our score was good enough to win, but it was not,” Kondos Field. “But how our athletes did, I wouldn’t change a thing.”