Sitting inside Coleman Coliseum, Kiana Winston waited for her name to be announced. Anticipation built inside the Alabama gymnast. Her normal competition leotard was traded in for a cap and gown.
The moment Winston stood, familiar voices rang through the crowd. She turned and spotted teammates Nickie Guerrero, Mackenzie Brannan and Jennie Loeb. A smile split across her face.
“My seniors, they have been with me since the day I stepped on this campus and they were there for graduation,” Winston said. “I wasn’t expecting them to be there the whole time, and they were literally there. I saw them.
Oklahoma at Alabama
When: Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Coleman Coliseum
Records: Alabama 7-3; Oklahoma 11-1
“I don’t want to tear up, but I was tearing up when I noticed they were there. I love them so freaking much. They yelled like really loud.”
Winston is the only member of the current Alabama senior class who graduated early in December. She leaves UA with a degree in psychology with plans for graduate school. She minored in human development.
The other three will go through commencement in May, after the Crimson Tide wraps up its 2018 season. Guerrero is a finance major. Brannan is majoring in psychology and minoring in biology. Loeb has a major in biology.
Four years is coming to an end.
“This particular class is very near and dear to my heart because they had a choice: They didn’t have to stay at Alabama,” UA coach Dana Duckworth said. “They had not gotten here yet, and not a single one of them wavered when the coaching change took place because they were coming here to be a part of a tradition, a part of a culture, that has maintained and gotten even stronger.”
All four of them came to Alabama thinking Sarah Patterson was going to be their coach, but she retired after the 2014 season and left Duckworth in charge.
During their freshmen year, the Crimson Tide won SEC and NCAA regional championships. It reclaimed the latter again in 2016.
Friday will be their Senior Night, as Alabama hosts Oklahoma in Coleman Coliseum for its last regular-season home meet.
“They came here as young girls,” Duckworth said. “They’re leaving here as young women.”
Ones who want to go out and better the world, just like Alabama has bettered them.
“To be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, I never really communicated and I didn’t really know if I had a voice or not,’” Winston said. “Now, I know that I have a voice and have people behind me to support me. I just know that I can make a difference in someone’s life.”
Said Guerrero: “Just the headstrong person that I am, I underestimated myself my whole life until I came here, especially the last couple of years. So I think really I haven’t changed much but just embraced the type of leader I am and realized how important I am to people and what I can do for others.”
These are the type of life lessons Duckworth wants her gymnasts to take into the next chapter of their lives. She always preaches that gymnastics is what they do, not who they are, but the sport does help develop them into the people they are supposed to be.
Alabama’s four seniors have two more meets in Coleman Coliseum – Oklahoma then a regional on April 7. Then, they’ll return the first weekend in May for graduation. And just like Guerrero, Brannan and Loeb powered through the ceremony, Winston will also be in the stands.
It just may not be as obvious.
“The thing is, my voice is so loud that you just can’t compare,” Guerrero said. “But she will be there supporting all of us for every single walk that we have for our senior class. I know she will definitely be there.
“I don’t think her voice will travel that far, but I will listen for her.”
Because that’s what teammates – friends – do.